Members seek upscale food as part of a more casual experience, with ingredient-focused menus and dishes that are creatively prepared.
Fine dining has shifted from being a theme to being a philosophical approach. It’s a much more casual and intimate experience that’s dictated by diners’ preferences.
“Members want upscale food in a more comfortable atmosphere,” says Paul Frintap, Executive Chef at The Country Club of Little Rock (Ark.), which does just under $3 million in annual F&B. “Fine dining used to be stuffy and stiff. That’s gone. The look and feel of our dining room is more approachable, our menus change more frequently, and they feature regional fare, creatively prepared.”
Fine dining used to be defined by high price points, white tablecloths, and luxury ingredients. Foie gras, caviar and white truffles were the norm. But as clubs like The CC of Little Rock continue to evolve to meet member demands, those luxury items are used less and less.
“Anyone can sear foie gras,” says Robert Meitzer, Executive Chef at Mountain Top Golf and Lake Club, Cashiers, N.C. “But the true test of a chef is in making a bowl of carrots that a member is not only willing to spend $9 on, but craves.”
Carrots: The New Caviar
“Club chefs work directly with the people who produce the food we cook,” says Meitzer. “My fishmonger will text me a list of what he has on the dock every day. And I have relationships with farmers who grow vegetables according to our clubs’ needs.”
Being able to source these kinds of fresh, high-quality ingredients is what makes the fine-dining experience special. The $9 carrots that Meitzer mentioned are destined for a select few, after being grown just for Mountain Top, picked at their peak and put on the plate almost immediately. And while they don’t cost as much as caviar and truffles, they still have substantial culinary value.
“We use ingredients to their fullest potential,” says Meitzer. “To keep fine dining fresh and special, we offer a lot of variety. I might use five different beef programs over the course of a few weeks. One week we might feature organic beef from Oregon. The next, we might feature dry-aged beef from New York. And the week after that, we might feature local North Carolina beef.”
Quality ingredients and thoughtful preparation are what make fine dining a sustainable success at Mountain Top.
At The CC of Little Rock, Frintap views fine dining as an opportunity to showcase to members the full range of the culinary team’s capabilities.
“Fine dining presents an opportunity that casual dining can’t,” he says. “We can showcase dishes, ingredients and techniques that don’t fit in a traditionally casual setting.”
Menus are fresh and approachable, with a contemporary twist. They change seasonally with specials that change daily. The dining room is stately with an understated element of elegance, reports Frintap.
“The servers play a crucial role in our fine-dining venue,” he says. “They must be well-versed in wine service and food preparations, and in anticipating the needs of our members. They are the front lines of our operation, and we spend a lot of time and resources educating them.”
Sedgefield Country Club, Greensboro, N.C., puts equal stock in its servers, recognizing that their interaction with members is crucial to the fine-dining operation’s overall success.
“Servers can make or break the experience,” says James Patterson, Executive Chef.
Like Mountain Top, Sedgefield CC uses a great deal of local ingredients, house-cut meats and high-quality seafood in its fine-dining spaces. Portion sizes are also an important part of the equation.
“More is not always better,” says Patterson, who runs a 38% overall food cost. “I want the staff and the members to realize that when it comes to fine dining, it’s quality over quantity.”
Plate presentation is also important to Patterson. “Food is visual,” he says.
“Members are a lot more food-savvy,” he says. “There will always be a place for ultra-high-end fine dining, especially in the club market. But instead of being the rule, it is now the exception. Comfortable fine dining is the new standard.”