When the first guests were welcomed into the highly anticipated Goodnight Hospitality tasting-menu restaurant March, albeit as part of a holiday-season, lounge-style concept that acted as a preview, June Rodil felt an even more pronounced bounce in her step. Darting from the more casual Rosie Cannonball to the freewheeling Chalet and up to the slightly more serious March felt like the ultimate thrill for someone who lives and breathes hospitality.
"It felt awesome," says Rodil, a master sommelier and partner at Goodnight Hospitality. "The most rewarding aspect was seeing the movement between the restaurants. People would start with a drink at March and say, 'Actually, I want dinner, I want a pizza downstairs [at Rosie Cannonball].' And then have a really grateful handoff between the two concepts."
The lounge at March closed in January, but the full fine-dining restaurant will begin regular service in early spring. Its arrival, which was originally planned for March 2020, is part of a trend that's taken shape in the Houston culinary scene. Expensive and inclusive fine dining is in vogue, even amid a pandemic. In fact, Covid-19 may be showing us that these kinds of ultra-fancy excursions are, in fact, the near future of our foodie experience.
To understand that, go back to the beginning of Covid-19. Just as Goodnight Hospitality was beginning to train staff at March, Benjamin Berg and Robert Del Grande were opening Turner's on the first floor of the building that hosts The Annie Cafe & Bar.
Turner's is unique for Houston. Patterned after the Rainbow Room and other supper-club-style restaurants of 1950s New York City, it has only 48 seats over a few, well-spread-out tables and bar chairs; dim lighting; a regular piano player; dishes prepared table-side; and checks for two that'll typically start at around $250 and can quickly balloon. Berg wanted to give the city that kind of restaurant, and Del Grande—excited to prepare a range of Continental and old-school fancy dishes, like lobster Thermidor and a table-side wedge salad—has been game in executing the concept.
While Turner's closed because of Covid-19, it has recovered just fine after it reopened, with a wait list nearly every day because, as Berg is seeing, Houstonians really want to go out and spend money on a classic dining experience.
"People want a reason to get dressed up," says Berg. "In Houston, restaurants have really become the nightlife. People want to put a jacket on, a dress on, and have a great night."
Berg is also seeing that while the Turner's crowd is primarily composed of people in their 40s and 50s, there's been a fair amount of people in their 30s and early 40s in the restaurant as well. That's another trend that signals fine dining may have some room to grow.
"It was very refreshing to see a younger crowd," says Rodil about the lounge at March's makeup, though she's quick to note that some older patrons reached out specifically to apologize for not reserving seats out of caution during the pandemic. Nevertheless, seeing more millennial-aged people at fine dining restaurants is a sign that there's a brighter future for this kind of experience, that there's an appreciation for the care and effort that go into crafting a $100-or-more solo meal.
"The information comes so easily, and people can go online and google how much everything is. They're very educated and knowledgeable in that sense," says Billy Kin, co-founder of Hidden Omakase, which opened in December as a 14-seat concept with a different Japanese omakase meal nightly. That means the chef creates the entire menu on the fly for everyone, though there may be input from guests.
Kin's take is that younger diners want a more intimate experience that connects them to chefs and servers, one that puts them in the spotlight for that evening. "They see the value in that more than if you go to the old-school scripted place where the food is fantastic and that's it."
Hidden Omakase, which charges $150 for a seating, is all about crafting a menu that refocuses the attention to a one-on-one connection. Kin wants to put on a show, to give his guests something to remember when they leave.
While omakase fare might not be the same as March's Mediterranean-focused tasting menus (about $200–$300 for two) or Turner's very surf-and-turf-friendly vibe, what ties them together is the intent to make a serious memory. A fine dining restaurant may have one and only one chance to impress someone, so it had better make that count.
"In that one shot they make the decision on whether they'll use you again for a bigger celebration," says Rodil. "So you have to wow them every time they come in and change their perspective."
Of course, there are other restaurants thinking along the same wavelength. Degust, a tasting-menu restaurant from chef Brandon Silva that charges $75 for food and $45 extra for beverage pairings, all per person, opened in January in Spring Branch and already has racked up several positive online reviews. Justin Yu's Theodore Rex has taken a sabbatical for a few months to make way for a pop-up tasting-menu restaurant from chef Kaitlin Steets. Her food menu is $65 for one, while wine pairings are $55 extra.
Later this spring, Bastion Restaurants of La Table will unveil Le Jardinier—a French restaurant whose New York location won a 2020 Michelin Star—at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. It's uncertain how that may change the fine dining conversation in Houston, but one thing's for certain: there is plenty more of it to talk about these days. Just think about what it'll look like when Covid-19 fears are well behind us.
"All the parties and entertaining that has not happened ... I think we're in a great position to be part of the roaring back of entertaining, dining out, and sophisticated nightlife," Berg says. "I'm buying my Dom [Pérignons] right now and the big wines. I'm very bullish that it's gonna come back."