I Finally Understand the Appeal of the Tasting Menu

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Fine dining at the highest levels is long and involved, an expensive multi-hour journey that often leaves me wanting a slice of pizza on the way home. I have always found James Beard Award–winning tasting menus and Michelin-starred omakase tedious and navel-gazing. I find myself checking the time while the server waxes poetic about the origin of tonight’s seasonal mushroom dish or when the bespectacled sommelier goes long on the soil from a particular region.

But I have recently begun to rethink my stance, after experiencing two tasting-menu dinners in particular. The first was in New York City at Le Bernardin, the classic French restaurant helmed by celebrity chef Eric Ripert. I was there with chef and cookbook author Andy Baraghani and my How Long Gone cohost, Jason Stewart. We had a fun and engaging conversation, the service was impeccable and not overly serious, and the dining room was humming (the average age hovered around 60). I can’t recall a single dish I ate, but putting on a suit and heading to Midtown to dine in a legendary room with good company changed my opinion on the tasting menu. For many people it’s all about the food and wine, but it was the service, ambiance, and unhurried conversation that stuck with me. The steady delivery of the various dishes is a well-oiled performance that you get to observe, participate in, and talk through. Of course, it’s expensive—but so many good things are.

Last week, when Jason and I were in San Francisco for a show, we went to Quince (pictured), a three-star Michelin restaurant in Jackson Square. It has been operating since 2003 but recently reopened after a very impressive renovation. The space is light and warm, filled with vintage furniture, and complemented with a garden-esque courtyard. Everything felt exactly right, and like it had been there for years. Two local friends, Jonah Weiner of Blackbird Spyplane and Adam Wray, joined us for a three-plus-hour meal that flowed perfectly. We didn’t splurge on the white truffle pasta, but we were still fully satisfied when the chef and owner, Michael Tusk, finally handed us a small cup of spiced hot chocolate for the road.

It’s hard to find spaces that transport you into someone else’s world or vision for a world. It’s a quality I look for in retail and have found at the Ralph Lauren flagship mansion on the Upper East Side, Saman Amel in Stockholm, and the Bode store on Melrose in Los Angeles. The experience at these stores—the customer service, the staff uniforms, the smell—is similar to that at a serious Michelin-star restaurant. It takes you outside of yourself.

These two experiences reminded me that a meal never lasts long if you are with the right people. I am impatient and want to be in bed by 10 p.m. I have a hard time not checking my phone. But the pacing at Le Bernardin and Quince allows you to linger and chat. The manager isn’t coming over and asking you “politely” to leave because someone is waiting. It’s luxurious but not stuffy or boring—if executed perfectly. I used to avoid these places, but now I see their value. Everything slows down when you enter this kind of dining room. Stepping into someone else’s fully realized world is a gift.

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