Upscale casual dining is dominating the industry’s sweet spot right now.
As a growing number of club and resort properties undo the proverbial top button, more and more members are seeking a relaxed, less-formal dining experience. They still want service that is warm and engaging, and cooking that is inventive and delicious—but they don’t want high price tags and excessive formality
The International Polo Club (IPC), Palm Beach, Fla., has responded to these trends by offering its nearly 500 members two different dining options: The 7th Chukker, and The Mallet Grille.
“The Mallet Grille is super-casual and much more family-oriented,” says William Sellner, Executive Chef. “The 7th Chukker, on the other hand, strikes the perfect balance with upscale fare in a relaxed, quiet atmosphere.”
There are no tablecloths in The 7th Chukker. Instead, the room is filled with hand-hewn wooden tables from Brazil, along with other rustic touches such as exposed beams. The menu changes every three months and features an array of internationally inspired dishes.
“Flavor comes first,” says Sellner, who has been with the club for seven years. “I’m not one of those chefs who builds skyscrapers or puts something on the plate that doesn’t need to be there. I believe that everything has a place, and that everything should be done with a reason and purpose.”
Sellner harnesses flavors from around the world, which he then breaks down and reconstructs to make dishes more interesting. One example is his Asian-style short ribs.
“It eats like a really simple dish,” says Sellner. “But there are a lot of steps and elements that go into preparing it.”
He starts with a flanken-style short rib, which he seasons and sears. Then, to make the sauce for braising the ribs, he combines house-smoked bacon with garlic, cinnamon sticks, cardamom, star anise, port wine, and red wine. He adds a rich, homemade demi-glace before including onions and cooking it down for an hour and a half. Just before service, he adds an Asian-style sweet soy.
“There are many different layers and flavors in the ribs,” says Sellner. “As you eat it, you have these tastes and textures unfolding slowly with each bite.”
Because value is equally important in clubs’ upscale casual restaurants, dishes in The 7th Chukker run between $12 and $30. “We give them the best food for their dollar,” says Sellner.
Meanwhile, The Club at Rolling Hills, Golden, Colo., prices its upscale casual dishes at anywhere between $18 and $30.
“Chefs walk a fine line when they try to create an upscale casual concept,” says Steve Weber, Executive Chef at Rolling Hills, which does roughly $1.6 million in annual F&B revenues. “We offer breakfast, lunch and dinner in our dining room. So we have an even greater challenge in differentiating the atmosphere between the different day parts.”
Breakfast and lunch are both extremely casual at Rolling Hills, but for dinner, the club dresses up the dining room a bit, with tablecloths and fine china.
“The atmosphere is still relaxed, but it’s a touch more formal than earlier in the day,” says Weber.
The menu strategy focuses on creative presentations, such as Scottish salmon with smoked paprika over cauliflower steak.
“You can add a lot of value and flavor with quality ingredients,” says Weber. “A demi is a perfect example. If you make your own and you add it to an Angus strip with crumbled blue cheese, bacon and caramelized onions, it adds a savory element without blowing your food cost.”
Rolling Hills also elevates its dining room for dinner service by offering tweens and teens a dedicated menu that features smaller portions of premium dishes such as pot stickers, nachos, bison sliders and even a petite filet.
“Members love this menu, as it helps their children explore new foods without the cost commitment of a full-sized entrée,” says Weber.
Both IPC and Rolling Hills have found that the key to upscale success rests in adapting to members’ wants and needs.
“You can take something really formal, break it down and rebuild it, so that it’s not only new but also more accessible,” says IPC’s Sellner. “That’s what our members want: Dining that is personalized and approachable.”