Fine Dining Without All the Frills

It's Friday night in London's trendy Shoreditch neighborhood, and the Albion is humming. East End hipsters, bankers and friends out for a night of gossiping sit elbow to elbow at long, wooden communal tables. Both the menu and the ambience are simple—you may have to ask the patron next to you for your cutlery—and even the wait staff is dressed down. Albion, which opened in January, doesn't take bookings, and there is no fawning service here. But the food is excellent: big portions of old favorites like fish and chips and mushy peas, sold at very reasonable prices. Peter Prescott, who co-owns Albion along with restaurant and design guru Sir Terence Conran and his wife, says people are drawn to the straightforward concept. "We've had executives from a renowned blue-chip company who came in wanting to entertain clients and show them that instead of holding a big extravagant dinner in a five-star restaurant, you can entertain in these times in a very simple, enjoyable way," he says. "We've had captains of industry in here, jackets off, tucking into food and I think they probably enjoyed it more than they would have in a really tight-ass restaurant."

Those kinds of places are definitely passé. People may be down, but they're still dining out, increasingly drawn to eateries that offer delicious, hearty food in a laid-back environment. It sounds like an oxymoron, but bare-bones fine dining is the order of the day. Forget suiting up and sitting for hours through a four-course meal, whose heart-stopping bill reflects the stilted service as much as the food; today's diners want to strip away the excess and pay only for what they came for: first-rate food. Thanks in part to the onslaught of celebrity-chef shows and cookbooks that allow anyone to become a gourmand, customers have gotten savvy about the restaurant industry; they are no longer impressed by the bells and whistles—amuse-bouches, armies of servers, water menus—that typically define fine dining. Restaurants like Warsaw's U Kucharzy, Paris's Le Timbre and New York's 26 Seats offer basic surroundings—no linens or rare-bred roses in sight—that emphasize the experience of the palate over the atmospherics. "In a sense, consumers are no longer bothered by whether there is a tablecloth or not, and sometimes lots of frills almost make you suspicious that the food is not going to be so great," says Jon Lake, who covers the restaurant sector for Deloitte. "These days, great-quality, well-produced, well-served food at a reasonable price is what it is all about."

In Europe at least, the concept of no-frills restaurants grew partly out of the gastropub revolution that hit Britain in the mid-1990s, when diners embraced upscale cuisine served in the relaxed environs of a scrubbed-up pub. Though gastropub menus varied—some served more traditional pub fare like sausages and mash, while others offered upscale options like chicken-liver parfait with vanilla jelly—the idea that people could enjoy delicious food in low-key surroundings took off. It helps that dining has moved from being a discretionary to an essential part of people's lifestyles, according to a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers report. During the last recession in the 1990s, one in five Britons ate out regularly; by 2008, that number had tripled.

A Zagat survey recently found that in the United States, 50 percent of all meals are eaten outside the home. That prompted the company to dub the good-food/no-frills phenomenon "BATH"—Better Alternative to Home. "These restaurants are competing with your ability to shop, cook and clean," says Zagat Survey's cofounder Tim Zagat. "They buy their food wholesale and they produce it efficiently, while we buy our food retail and produce it inefficiently—with the net result being that on a cost basis it may be a better value for you to go out to eat."

By toning down the surroundings, chefs are free to concentrate on preparing and serving good food. And the customer isn't stuck footing the bill for hidden costs, like a reservation system. "All the extras you might see on the table—they all add up," says Albion's Prescott. Warsaw's U Kucharzy has certainly eliminated all the extras. In a city not known for its gastronomic offerings, this internationally renowned eatery, which translates as "At the Chefs," is located in an old hotel kitchen where chefs make the food—including roast goose, Polish-style chicken and an excellent steak tartare—in front of the customers and then serve it themselves. The décor, which includes mismatched tiles and simple tables, is deliberately shabby, says co-owner Mateusz Gessler, to help customers focus on the food. "We have tried to break the stereotype in Poland that in order to be considered a good restaurant you have to be in a fancy place," he says. "What is most important is who you are eating with and what you're eating."

Los Angeles chef Gino Angelini has latched onto the trend to overhaul his Italian restaurant La Terza, a fine-dining establishment that has fallen on hard times. Angelini and his partners recently renovated the place, removing the fussy white tablecloths, painting the walls in warm oranges and browns and renaming it the more rustic-sounding Minestraio. They also made over the menu: all pasta dishes are now $12.50 or less, and no dish costs more than $30. "That mode and style is much more compatible with the way people want to go out," says Angelini's wife, Elizabeth McLaury. "We don't make lobster or truffles [anymore]; we make a really good minestrone."

Beijing-based Irish chef Brian McKenna—who worked under Gordon Ram-say—now runs the exclusive The Secret Room, open only Mondays through Wed-nesdays and serving $146 set menus for 15 people at a time in a secret location in Beijing's Central Business District, which is announced at the last minute and changes every month. In July, McKenna plans to open the more accessible The Room, a 150-seat restaurant that will serve inexpensive but reliable brasserie faresimple sandwiches and salads, satisfying meat dishes and great breads—always using the best local ingredients. He hopes to smash the restaurant model in Asia, which expects customers to pay handsomely for top-notch cosmopolitan food but scrimps on the lower end of the price scale. "We're not doing lettuce with a bit of dressing here," McKenna says. "We're not spending big money on plates, glasses and tablecloths [because] we need to get back to basics."

People have not turned away completely from upscale fancy dining, but many Michelin-starred eateries are feeling the pinch because corporate dining budgets have been slashed. Meanwhile, noncorporate customers are choosing to splurge only for special occasions. "There are no more fancy bottles of wine," says Zagat. "People are cutting back on desserts and paying more attention to the prices."

Chefs, too, are taking a hard look at their expenses. Marcus Wareing, another Ramsay protégé who owns London's Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley, says he has scrutinized every contract to see where to cut costs. "We used to use black bin bags and now we use see-through ones so you can visually see [what is being thrown out]," he says. "We have dishes where you only use the white part of a leek, and the green will usually get thrown out. [But now] we are basically using every element of it and being incredibly creative." And in this economic climate, it's the most creative who are most likely survive.