Recently the famed New York restaurant Per Se was demoted to two stars by the New York Times. It got a lot of press online and went mini-viral. The review reminded me a bit of the commentary that went around after the restaurant Daniel in New York dropped from 3 Michelin Stars to 2 Michelin Stars.
I've been a fair number of dining adventures the past few years and have hit up many restaurants after my trip to Per Se's sister restaurant French Laundry. Over that time, I've come to an understanding on fine dining and restaurants.
In my opinion, restaurants sway in one of two directions. Either they are "classic" or "hip". "Hip" can be interpreted multiple ways, perhaps "new age" or "interesting" would also suffice. Individual dishes fall into the "classic" or "interesting" category as well. Basically what it comes down to is if the restaurant is trying to cook you a perfect recreation of a classic dish or trying to do something really different or interesting.
A few of the restaurants I've been to that remind me of the "classic" category are Chez Panisse, Alexander's Steakhouse, and La Folie. French Laundry perhaps sways towards the classic end. A steak from Alexander's Steakhouse is a wonderful example of a "classic" dish. There is nothing truly creative about this particular dish. They procure the best steak they can and then cook it to perfection. The lamb from French Laundry, duck from La Folie, and the pork loin from Chez Panisse also come to mind. Classic ingredients cooked to perfection and in a relatively classic fashion.
A places that immediately come to mind on the "hip" or "interesting" end would be State Bird Provisions and Al's Place. Saison, Benu, and Commis probably sway towards this end. Here there are dishes you generally cannot find anywhere else because they are quite unique. The lobster coral xiao long bao from Benu is the one that immediately comes to mind. You can't find this dish probably anywhere else in the bay area, or possible even the whole United States. The hearts of palm salad from State Bird Provisions and radish snackle from Al's place also come to mind in this category.
So there in lies the rub for higher end restaurants and reviewers. How do you grade a restaurant that serves "classic" fair vs a restaurant that serves "hip" fair. Restaurants serving "classic" fair may be limited in the types of dishes they serve. With the case of French Laundry or Per Se, there are such classic dishes that customers expect, they can't really take them off the menu. If "classic" restaurants cannot take them off the menu, how can they create new dishes? If they cannot create new dishes, will they fall behind other restaurants?