The classic, time-honored restaurant hierarchy has been in place for longer than most of you reading these words have been alive. Since at least the first half of the 20th century, there were high-end restaurants—upscale, fine-dining, white-tablecloth establishments aiming to deliver a distinctly superior alternative to the work-day meal. And then there was everything else: diners, drive thrus, sandwich shops, midscale restaurants, burger joints, pizza parlors, barbecue pits, clam shacks, taquerias, hot dog carts, and so on.
Naturally, that taxonomy lent itself to certain prejudices. In years past, elite chefs would have preferred to sit down to a meal of canned ham and light beer than deign to hawk their wares in a fast-food or fast-casual environment. Those of us who were classically trained as chefs went through that trying ordeal, at least in part, because we wanted to serve great food—food that had been carefully conceived, crafted, and prepared—to people who might want to take time to appreciate it in a relaxed and attractive environment. The entire fast-food/fast-casual ethos is so utilitarian, so consumed with speed, satiety, and practicality, that it’s diametrically opposed to the white-tablecloth experience. No chef worth his salt would have wanted to be mixed up in it.
That was then. Today, of course, the sharp distinctions between high and low cuisine are becoming more fluid. The emergence of fast-casual dining in the early 1990s helped elevate the public’s notion of what good food served quickly could be. And those elevated expectations have continued to rise right up to the present day.
No single cultural phenomenon better illustrates the convergence of “high” and “low” culinary cultures than the trend of celebrity chefs opening their own fast-food and fast-casual restaurants.
In New York, David Chang of Momofuku fame—the fine-dining mini empire that takes a phenomenally creative and modern approach to Japanese and other Asian cuisines—has opened Fuku, which New York magazine described as “home of the $8 spicy-fried-chicken sandwich and prototype for what the chef hopes will become a fast-food brand.” Danny Meyer of Union Square Hospitality Group, best known for Gramercy Tavern, The Modern at the Museum of Modern Art, North End Grill, and Blue Smoke, has upended expectations of what a great fast-food burger can be with his concept Shake Shack.
And in both Oakland, California, and the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, celebrated chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson are taking gourmet-caliber fast-food fare that’s healthy and affordable to traditionally underserved urban communities with their concept Locol. They’re trading in traditional fast-food territory by serving burgers, fried chicken, bowls, and wraps, but nearly everything on the menu is enhanced with artisanal ingredients or locally sourced products. It’s tasty, creative grub that looks like fast food on the surface, but has been elevated by their discerning and creative sensibilities.
Ultimately, these chefs aren’t dabbling to enhance their profiles or grow their empires; rather, they’re seizing opportunities to put their money where their health-conscious, quality-conscious mouths are, with the goal of bringing better-tasting, better-quality, price-sensitive food to consumers.
The other side of this novel coin is the emergence of the modern, chef-driven “food hall”—fancy, contemporary food courts that make it unnecessary to choose between food that’s fast and food that’s of unimpeachable quality. Mario Batali and his partners Lidia and Joe Bastianich were on the vanguard of this trend with their Eataly markets in New York and Chicago, and now other big culinary names are getting into the mix as well.
Anthony Bourdain plans a major new unveiling in New York next year: a food hall outfitted with between 40 and 50 stalls at which diners can sample street-food bites and snacks. In Chicago, Richard Sandoval is trying his hand at what his website calls “a truly unique dining experience [that] brings the flavors of Latin America, Spain, and Portugal to the heart of Chicago. … A multi-sensory experience that features 10 innovative kitchens, a tapas restaurant, coffee café, full bar, market, and lounge.” And in San Francisco, George Chen’s China Live will offer 30,000 square feet of Chinese food heaven, including a café, restaurant, bar, and retail concept billed, informally, as the “Eataly of Chinese Food.”
All of these massive culinary undertakings have something in common: a fixation on high-quality, traditional, and contemporary ethnic choices, served in multiple venues, all under one roof. The goal is to provide a dining experience that’s like a slice of life in the country or countries whose cuisine is featured, but with a faster service cycle. After all, a 45-minute experience in Eataly takes a lot less time and effort than a two-week trip to Italy.
The takeaway for fast-food and fast-casual concepts is that quality, presentation, authenticity, health, and flavor adventure continue to drive innovation in quick-service dining. Not every chain can go toe to toe with the likes of Mario Batali or David Chang, but every concept can draw on those chefs’ commitment to an elevated quick-serve experience that brooks no compromise.