Does the idea of a fine dining drive-thru restaurant intrigue you? Over the last few years, restaurants and their award-winning chefs have had to get creative. Carry-out cocktails, pop-up experiments, and chef-led zoom classes became part of a unique phase of experimentation. But can a 10-course tasting menu work to-go? Read on as we look at the difficulties and possibilities for fine dining drive-thru restaurants.
The Challenges of Fine Dining Drive-Thrus
Undoubtedly, taking a meal crafted at a fine dining restaurant on the road is filled with challenges. Fine dining features sophisticated cuisine that hinges on a delicate balance of complex flavor profiles. That alone isn’t easy to sustain when the meal has to be placed in to-go containers and transported for some time before being enjoyed. And if the meal is being delivered over a significant distance, there is the additional risk that the food will have to be reheated, and re-firing a dish rarely produces a result as successful as the original.
But fine dining is also about the experience. The intricate plating, the perfect wine pairings for every course, and the restaurant’s atmosphere all create a uniquely sumptuous event. As chef-owner Daniel Patterson explained to Food & Wine, a great restaurant “‘creates an illusion of a life where everyone is happy to see us, every need is met, and everything tastes better.’” The best fine dining event can prompt an emotional response and inspire chefs to innovate. Patterson goes on to explain that losing that entirely would mean losing “‘risk-taking, inspiration, the sense of discovery.’”
Does that mean fine dining drive-thru restaurants and take-home options will never thrive? No. And some chefs have devised brilliant variations of in-restaurant offerings that are well worth the indulgence.
Hollywood Palladium Drive-Thru
To date, one of the most successful fine dining drive-thru experiments occurred in Los Angeles at the Hollywood Palladium. In October 2020, 10 well-known Los Angeles-based chefs came together to create a wonderfully decadent 10-course meal that guests could enjoy in their cars. Patrons followed a driving track that boasted 10 different stations – one course per station. Every car had its own waiter to help guide them through the process.
American Express and Resy sponsored the event, and by all accounts, it was an extraordinary success. Only new dishes were featured, and the goal was to make them as delightful as they would be in the chefs’ restaurants. For example, if you are a huge fan of Nancy Silverton and her Osteria Mozza, you would have loved her “spiced lamb ribs with tzatziki and Armenian spices.” If you adore Japanese desserts, Konbi’s station featured, among other decadent options, “a caramel and ganache tart infused with Hojicha green tea.” Dream of a truffle pomme fondue? Jon & Vinny’s mortadella sandwich featured a truffle pomme fondue that thrilled the palate. All in all, it was an exciting opportunity to take a unique foodie adventure with some astonishing food. And it was such a success that this fine dining drive-thru event will likely become part of an annual celebration.
The Grove Drive-In and Picnic Society
The Grove, an upscale town-like shopping area in Los Angeles, created a combination fine dining outing and drive-in movie night. Set up for 120 cars, the event included gourmet meals catered by Curtis Stone, a Michelin-starred chef and restaurateur. Intriguingly, Curtis Stone was also encouraged to bring fine dining to The Grove as part of a four-month residency. Picnic Society became a full-service restaurant with al fresco dining that was both Bohemian and elegant. But what made the pop-up even more interesting was that Stone decided to create an extensive grab-and-go menu that included tantalizing and sophisticated takes on classic picnic foods. Each meal was developed to take it on the road without losing any of the in-restaurant quality. And judging by the repeat customers, it worked astoundingly well.
The Traveling Pop-Up Diner
Diners offer tempting nostalgia and delicious comfort food but are rarely considered part of the fine dining sphere. Resy and American Express aimed to change that by creating a traveling pop-up that combined the cozy comforts of nostalgic diners with some of the best restaurants in every city they visited. They challenged the restaurants to develop thoroughly tempting takes on the dishes that the cities were known for inventing (or improving). Travel + Leisure reports that the pop-up featured stunning dishes from Chicago’s Andros Taverna, Philadelphia’s Osteria, Washington, D.C.’s Anju, and NYC’s Michelin-starred Rezdôra. The Magazine reveals: “Menus [were] a pre-fix of four courses with beverages provided by Other Half Brewing Company, HOXIE Spritzer, and Volvic Water.” Not surprisingly, the “seated” meals at the outdoor pop-up diners sold out quickly, but a lucky number of epicureans were able to reserve drive-thru take-out orders to savor at home.
The Canlis Experiment
The upscale Canlis restaurant is located in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood. Known for serving James Beard Award-winning cuisine, Canlis shifted to crafting gorgeous-yet-comforting meals for take-out, drive-thru, and meal delivery. While their lunch meals changed gears to offer the “best burger in town,” the family dinner delivery service also became wildly popular by April 2020. It was the safest way to keep the restaurant’s staff employed and to provide high-end, sophisticated food to families in the neighborhood. The experiment also sparked a heart-warming coming-together of neighbors and other restaurateurs who, according to Food & Wine, donated everything from equipment from gourmet test kitchens to to-go containers to help Canlis with the transition.
Guests reserved in advance, and specific meals were available on a given night. Naturally, their already famous cassoulet dishes were a hit, and Canlis’ ability to switch gears meant that the farmers who were their farm-to-table suppliers stayed in business. It also meant that families could still enjoy the highest quality meals made with seasonally-inspired ingredients at a time when those options were rapidly dwindling.
Fine Dining Drive-Thru and Zoom Classes
If you have ever dreamed of learning to cook from a celebrated chef, there may be an option that allows you to do it from your own kitchen. Across the country, chefs examined ways to bring some of the fine dining elements directly into households. One of the most inventive plans was the creation of zoom dinners. Essentially, guests would make a reservation, visit a restaurant’s temporary drive-thru or curb-side pick-up station, take home a prepared basket of ingredients (with much of the preparation already completed), and finish their gourmet meal with the help of the restaurant’s chef over a zoom call. Some of these calls were private, and some included group meals to help foster a social dining atmosphere that was otherwise impossible to replicate. The experiments received rave reviews, as people were able to enjoy fantastic, gourmet meals, complete with wine pairings, in an environment that could be dressed up (or not) for a memorable evening. The idea of chef-led zoom meals was so attractive that they continue to be offered to this day. In fact, many famous chefs have joined the movement and now offer private zoom cooking classes in exchange for donations to their favorite charities.
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