As someone who dined at Michelin-star restaurants monthly, I was asked this question a lot. Although to make my case for it, you need to understand that fine dining is a moving target—it’s hard to define. When I started as a reclusive food writer in New York at the unripe age of 19, I had never stepped foot into a fine dining room, let alone ate raw salmon. I was a fussy eater, and if you ask my mum, she will tell you I only ate chicken schnitzel and tomato sauce growing up. Now I think about it; I was a terrible eater. I couldn’t appreciate good food in a multicultural family. Still, six years into a food and travel writing career, I’ve dined at over 42 Michelin star restaurants around the world, met top chefs, and consumed about six years’ worth of fine dining dishes on the daily. Now, I can appreciate the technique of making a bouillabaisse and appreciate the delicate balance of flavours, right down to the julienne of a carrot.
So is it worth it? In short, yes, it is, but not everyone will agree. To me, fine dining establishments are creative, exciting, and artistic. They present more than a meal; they curate an experience centred around fresh, quality produce and the diner. When you walk into a Michelin-star restaurant, the standards are high, the tablecloths are whiter, and the wine list is long. Still, when you leave the restaurant, you walk away with a memory, a new favourite dish, and an appreciation for hospitality. With each restaurant I walked into and out of, I learned something new about Japanese cuisine, wine, or even the flavours and textures I like.
Although, as I mentioned earlier, fine dining has changed over the past 10, 20, 30 years. The chefs I’ve interviewed over the years come from all walks of life. There’s Daniel Boulud, the French phenomenon known best for his restaurant Daniel in New York, and friend Eric Ripert, owner of Le Bernardin, a three Michelin star establishment. I’ve also broken bread with young chefs, such as Josh Niland, the young chef pioneering how we consume fish, and the firemaster, Lennox Hastie, whose restaurant Firedoor has become one of the most complex reservations in Sydney to get. They have each shared their stories of what fine dining was, which for Boulud used to be starched white linens in France, an expensive price tag, and formal wear. For others, it was cadaver-like staff, inaccessibility, and snooty patrons.
Thankfully those days have evolved to bring fine dining to the masses by changing what a fine dining establishment looks and feels like. I remember my first Michelin-star restaurant, Eleven Madison Park. I was 19 and assigned to write about the restaurant during a summer internship. I was terrified, to say the least, and uncomfortable. A napkin was folded over my lap, I couldn’t even tuck in my own chair, and everyone was in a suit. I was still in my fussy eating stage, but this was work, so I consumed every fork and spoonful of the artful plates placed in front of me for five courses. The first time I consumed lobster, bathed in garlic butter, I remember feeling angry at myself for neglecting my tastebuds the pleasures of seafood years before. But was it worth the $400 price tag? At the time, I would say you were crazy for spending that much on food, but now I would say it’s an investment.
Many don’t realise that not all Michelin restaurants have white tablecloths and silver service. My favourite Michelin-star restaurant is Casa Mono, a hole-in-the-wall Spanish restaurant east of New York’s Union Square. The dark wood, tall tables, open kitchen, and mosaic floor tiles give every impression of a casual neighbourhood joint, but in reality, it has one Michelin star and some of the best food I’ve ever eaten. I can still taste the spicy chorizo crudité, covered in a dollop of honey—the perfect balance of sweet, salty, and spicy.
We’re lucky in Australia to have access to a world of fine dining. From Quay to Aria, these institutions have defined fine dining in Australia for years, although it doesn’t end there. The newcomers such as Sixpenny offer degustation experiences, taking diners on a journey through ambitious plates that let the ingredients speak for themselves. At $195 per person for a tasting menu, you have to take a step back and think of the work that goes into making the dishes and the quality produce they source. Yes, $195 for one dinner is not something you would do weekly, but on occasion, springing for a fine dining experience will reward you with more than a meal.
Being expensive doesn’t cut it anymore, and neither does being pretentious. Some restaurants aim for that fine dining star on their shiny establishment, but in reality, only three in every 50 restaurants will provide the perfect service, great food and great atmosphere. There are world-class restaurants I’ve been to where one lacks in hospitality bringing down the overall experience. There is only a handful of restaurants out of the thousands of restaurants I’ve dined at that I can confidently say are worth the price tag. One of them is Saint Peter, Josh Niland’s restaurant in Paddington. Few places in the world would think to serve tuna nduja, salt and vinegar blue mackerel, or any of the other avant-garde dishes chef Niland conjure up in his dreams. It’s worth every dollar for the service, but more for the experience and introduction to food cooked and presented in a way you’ve never seen before.
Before you ask, yes, the portions are generally small, but the idea is to leave satisfied and content, not stuffed to the brim; you need to pop a button. You can sit through a 15-course omakase experience and only get one thumb-sized piece of raw fish for each course, but after 15 bites, you realise you’re content. It’s not about quantity, rather quality.
So is it worth it? If you appreciate or are interested in food and different cuisines, then yes. Fine dining is not cheap, although it’s becoming more accessible and changing its guidelines. Before, fine dining was reserved for French fare, but now you can indulge in Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Greek, South African, and Egyptian cuisines. You won’t find white tablecloths or silver plates; instead, the norm is a tasting menu showcasing different produce, cooking techniques, and flavours with optional wine pairings.
If you’re still tossing up whether or not to book that restaurant you’ve had your eye on, think of it this way. You would pay $200 for a ticket to see a band because you like the music and the atmosphere that comes with it. Why wouldn’t you pay $200 for the chance to expand your tastebuds, to stimulate your senses in more ways than one?
In my opinion, fine dining offers a memorable experience and an educational adventure that everyone should have at least once in their lifetime.
The cold weather in most parts of Australia coinciding with EOFY celebrations is the closest thing that we’ll get to snowy Christmas vibes. And if you’re in dire need of some festive cheer after the first six months of 2023, grab your ugly sweater and head to your nearest Red Rooster for Xmas in July deals.
From June 29 – July 31, 2023, Red Rooster is serving up free food items, a chance to win $10,000 or one of 10 merch packs valued at $400 and other fun prizes. All you have to do is sign up as a Red Royalty member and spend $5 on at a location near you or online.
Each week there’ll be new delicious deals and prizes to win. The week one deals have already dropped and they’re looking pretty tasty. You can get access to them via your Red Royalty account. The more you purchase, the more chances you have to win.
Spoiler alert: you can get 10 chicken nuggets for free, right now. Brb running to Red Rooster.