Welcome to "Schaefer," in which Eric Schaefer -- a local guy with a big (but discerning) appetite and a sense of humor to match -- takes on the Phoenix food scene.
Whatever happened to fine dining? Sure, you can have a James Beard-worthy meal at a number of Valley restaurants, but establishments where you can truly dine have become elusive, at best.
For me, dining constitutes more than eating. It implies a certain glory; a formality, dogmatic tradition of pomp and circumstance. Dining encompasses more than our caloric and nutritional need for sustenance and celebrates food, people and tradition. Fine dining has very much become a lost art.
The defunct Mary Elaine's at The Phoenician is as close to we came at fine dining in recent history, and they did it well. The food was precise, rooted in French gastronomic tradition and punishing to your credit card. Women's purses were placed on tiny pedestals, the wine list was encyclopedic and the employee-to-guest ratio was astonishing. Mary Elaine's was a cocoon of luxury and privilege. There was also L'Orangerie, at the Arizona Biltmore, where many of our city's best chefs learned their chops.
Today, Vincent on Camelback comes to mind when I think of "fine dining" in Phoenix but even Chef Guerithault has had to appeal to modern sensibilities by going more casual with Bleu, a less formal lounge at a lower price point. It feels sad to me, like a Ferrari stuck in traffic.
See also: Eric Schaefer's Got a Tip for You
It's no wonder that fine dining, or "continental cuisine" as it was once named, is largely monopolized by the French. They practically invented the idea that eating should be celebrated. Even today, centuries after Auguste Escoffier classified the mother sauces and gave meaning to haute cuisine, most respected culinary education programs are still rooted in French tradition. "La bonne cuisine est la base du véritable bonheur."
Good food is the foundation of genuine happiness, said Escoffier. But I feel that the great French chefs who invented much of the material that goes into those culinary programs would groan at what restaurants have become. I'm surprised that Escoffier hasn't rolled his way out of his grave by now and come back to kick some restaurateur's ass.
Clearly the trend toward informality isn't exclusive to the culinary world. The bespoke suits in my closet sit under a layer of dust but my fip-flops are well-worn. Air travel, once considered an occasion, feels more like a cattle call. People pile into the elevator before the people within have exited. The examples are endless.
And though I write this article from my office, slouched in my chair, in a wrinkled t-shirt with my shoes off and my face scruffy, I can't help but confess my secret longing for a return to formality. Is it more comfortable? No. But formality can also instill a sense of purpose and dignity. That is to say, there was no talk of twerking at Mary Elaine's.
Fine dining certainly implies snobbery. I'm okay with that, too. While there are myriad hole-in-the-wall joints -- frequently "ethnic" -- that feature incredible food made with pride and passion, they often don't make me want to linger. For me, the experience is crucial to...the experience.
A highly regarded local chef recently said to me, "There are a lot of upper middle class white people who think they deserve a medal for going to eat in ethnic restaurants in bad neighborhood." And maybe that's just it. Perhaps it isn't "just about the food" but really about so much more; manners, conversation, dignity, grace and respect for the past.
Lest you assert that fine dining is exclusive to the wealthy, I offer you this. Christo's Ristorante, located on 7th Street, has been in business for over 27 years. It doesn't get any love from the "food nerds" because it isn't cool and the food, mostly Italian continental classics, might have been innovative when they opened but hasn't changed much since then. Yet, it has stood the test of time and still attracts a loyal, albeit non-vocal, following of regulars. And what's interesting about Christo's is that everyone there seems to be dining, not eating. The servers are career servers who care about their craft and your happiness. And though not inexpensive, Christo's is approachable to people of many economic brackets. Christo's might be Italian, not French, but I'm quite sure that Escoffier would smile.
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But, more than anywhere else, I'm hopeful that the Wrigley Mansion can lead our Valley dining scene back towards the elegance of fine dining. The setting is spectacular; I could only dream of awaking each morning to such a view. The building itself is well preserved, and exudes old Arizona charm and style. And it never ceases to amaze me that the Wrigley Mansion was a surprise gift from Mr. Wrigley to his wife. (Damn you, Wrigley, I was going to buy my wife a Vitamix for our anniversary. Jerk.)
The Wrigley Mansion has had its ups and downs over the years, but it has been steadily gaining momentum under Paola Embry's leadership. There is a new chef at the helm, Robert Nixon. The initial buzz is that the food is better than ever. And there is nothing cooler - or more civilized - than having your dinner at the Wrigley in one of the many available private dining rooms, and then retiring to the library for an after dinner drink or a cigar on the patio. Finally, the food may match the elegance of the mansion itself.
Take a shower, put on some shoes and talk to your mom about manners. Our parents' generation may not have had smart phones or twitter, but neither did they have societal plagues like the Kardsashians or TheDirty.com. Our cultural evolution might be going in reverse but only you have the power to change that. And restoring the lost art of fine dining isn't a bad first step toward bringing some civility into our lives.