Fine dining is a particularly refined form of dining that focuses on the experience of dining: attentive table service, luxurious decor, premium ingredients, and an extensive wine list. The white tablecloth has become a symbol of fine dining, and these establishments are sometimes called white-tablecloth restaurants.
Fine dining restaurants often employ more creative chefs, who produce gourmet meals. Many chefs of fine-dining establishments are international celebrities. They might be considered for relaxing guests such as honeymooners, and high-end business travellers.
Both luxury dishes and more regular meals are expensive. In a high-income country such as the United States, a fine dining restaurant could charge $200 or more for a gastronomic menu with drinks, and $100 or more for a steak menu with house wine (which would be around $40 in a chain restaurant), and if you're ordering wine à la carte, the sky's the limit. While fine dining is nominally cheaper in low-income countries, it is much more expensive than casual dining. In Thailand, a fine dining menu can cost around 3,000 baht, while 300 baht would get you a full menu in a street-corner restaurant, and a simple meal at a local foodstall can go as low as 50 baht.
Fine dining is no place for travellers in a hurry; a dinner is intended to take a few hours. If a restaurant is famous, advance booking is usually needed; sometimes several weeks or even months in advance. Some fine dining restaurants, particularly those in Japan, do not take reservations from new customers at all, and you will need to be introduced by one of their regular customers to dine there.
There are many national and international rating systems for fine dining venues; the best-known of these is the Guide Michelin with its three-star system plus the Bib Gourmand for good values. Another well-known one that ranks restaurants around the world, as well as by continent, is the World's 50 Best Restaurants. As with any other ranking or rating system, these are also rather subjective, and many people regard them as being rather biased towards Western, or even French culinary preferences, with little understanding of the culinary traditions of other cultures of the world.
One of the things that differentiates high-end food from less expensive food that may also be delicious is the use of luxury ingredients, whether they are per se luxury items or especially good, rare or fresh examples of more common classes of ingredients. Here follow some special items you may see on menus in some of the world's most reputable fine-dining restaurants:
Meat and poultry
- Jamón ibérico, or Iberian ham, is a premium Spanish cured ham using a special breed of pig that is raised on a special diet. Usually sliced off the bone and eaten raw, though it often also features as an ingredient in the appetizer courses of Western fine dining meals. The bone of the ham also often features as a soup base. The towns of Guijuelo in Salamanca province, and Jabugo in Huelva province are the best known in Spain for producing this delicacy, which is the most expensive type of ham in the world.
- Pâté de foie gras is literally a pâté of fat liver, usually from a duck or sometimes a goose. If fat liver doesn't sound appetizing to you, try some anyway. It's uniquely rich and quite different from ordinary liver. However, some people have ethical objections to eating foie gras because the birds become fat by being force-fed, and the dish has been prohibited in some jurisdictions.
- Jinhua ham (金華火腿 jīn huá huǒ tuǐ) is a premium type of Chinese ham made from a special breed of pig that is often used as a soup base in high-end Chinese restaurants, and is also an essential ingredient in Buddha jumps over the wall. Produced in the city of Jinhua in Zhejiang province.
- Wagyu (和牛 wagyū) is a type of Japanese beef that has significant marbling with fat, with the highest A5 grade resulting in a "melt-in-your-mouth" texture. Perhaps the most internationally celebrated variant is Kobe beef (神戸牛 kōbe gyū), though there are numerous other celebrated variants that are found only in Japan and not exported such as Matsusaka beef (松阪牛 matsusaka gyū) and Omi beef (近江牛 ōmi gyū).
While local seafood can be abundant in fishing communities, it is usually expensive far from the ocean. Some species might be so rare, or difficult to prepare, that the price becomes astronomical.
- Uni (ウニ), or sea urchin, regularly features in kaiseki and edomae-zushi. Hokkaido uni, which tends to completely lack fishiness and have a taste somewhat like the highest-quality chicken liver plus ocean water, is generally considered the best, though the generally somewhat stronger-tasting Santa Barbara uni is also appreciated.
- Various premium grades of tuna (マグロ maguro) often feature in Japanese sushi. The fattier cut is known as ō-toro (大トロ), and is usually very expensive, while a slightly less fatty cut is known as chū-toro (中トロ), and is usually slightly less expensive as well. Fatty tuna is often minced and mixed with spring onions and wasabi, which is known as negi-toro (ネギトロ).
- Caviar is a mass of fish roe (eggs). There are several types. The most expensive kinds are of endangered sturgeon from the Caspian Sea, which feature prominently in high-end Russian cuisine, and since they're endangered, you may want to avoid eating their eggs. In Japan, tobiko — flying fish roe — is prized. Not everyone will like the very salty taste of caviar or its texture, but it has been considered a luxury item for a long time.
- Abalone (鮑魚 bào yú in Chinese; 鮑 awabi in Japanese) often features as a premium ingredient in Chinese and Japanese fine dining. An essential ingredient in the famous dish Buddha jumps over the wall (佛跳牆 fó tiào qiáng).
- Shark's fin (魚翅 yú chì) has long been a part of high-end Chinese banquets, but is controversial due to the fact that many fishermen harvest them by cutting the fins off and throwing the sharks back into the sea to die a slow and painful death, "wasting" the rest of the shark and leading to declining shark populations. Due to pressure from environmentalists, it is usually not listed on menus these days, but is often available as an off-menu item by request. Also an essential ingredient in Buddha jumps over the wall.
- White truffles. If you've only had so-called "truffle oil" before, you do not know how these taste. The overwhelming majority of "truffle oil" actually has no truffle content. In high-end restaurants, you may have the opportunity to see your waiter shave slices of white truffle onto your savory dishes or dessert. It has a unique taste unlikely anything else and goes well with savory and sweet items alike. White truffles grow only in Northern Italy. They were traditionally harvested with the help of pigs to sniff them out, though dogs have replaced the pigs since the use of pigs was banned in 1985.
- Black truffles — less expensive than white truffles but still a luxury item with a unique earthy taste distinct from the taste of white truffles. Traditionally grown in parts of France, Spain and Italy, with the historical French region of Périgord being best known for it.
- Other prized mushrooms include Morchella, or true morels, often cooked in butter, Chanterelle, penny bun (Boletus edulis), slippery jack (Suillus luteus), honey fungi (Armillaria) and pine bolete (Boletus pinophilus), prepared and served in different ways.
- Japanese muskmelon (マスクメロン) is a very sweet and expensive type of melon similar to honeydews and cantaloupes that can be found in the basements of many Japanese department stores, with a single melon generally retailing at over ¥10,000 (~US$100) each. Small pieces are often served as a dessert course in high-end kaiseki restaurants.
- Bird's nest (燕窩 yàn wō) is the nest of various species of swiftlets made from solidified saliva, considered to be a delicacy in Chinese cuisine. It often features on dessert menus in high-end Chinese restaurants and is easy to find in Bangkok's Chinatown and among ethnic Chinese communities in Malaysia. However, it doesn't have much taste, just texture.
Fine dining in Europe originally stems from the culture of French cuisine, the royal courts and the aristocracy of Europe. The bourgeoisie copied this behaviour. With industrialisation the middle class followed and adapted fine dining to their status in society and their financial strength. Tableware in sterling silver, porcelain and crystal became means of fine dining for the well-off, and was also a practical investment, sometimes given as wedding presents in complete sets. During the 20th century fine dining was made affordable for the masses introducing mass-produced tableware of less expensive materials. Table manners are associated with fine dining. Historically, children dined at a separate table or even in a separate room with a nanny. Children are now welcomed at the table, but are expected to adhere to table manners as well.
In the 18th century the French word gourmet was given as the reputable name for a connoisseur of delicious things that were not eaten primarily for nourishment. A gourmet chef is a chef of particularly high caliber of cooking talent and skill, some of them are even celebrities. Gourmet dining or high-end dining restaurants in Europe has features like Michelin stars or renowned chefs. They can be in a historical building or have an exceptional view, are spacious with high-end interior design that matches the cuisine, and have a well assorted and extensive wine cellar. Features like a private dining room, dedicated smoker's lounge with cigars and perhaps live music for a closed dining company are also considered high-end dining. These features combined with a specific cuisine come at a premium. High-end restaurants often have dress codes, such as requiring a jacket and sometimes a tie from men and a formal dress from women.
Ordinary fine dining in Europe is affordable to most, since it has the essentials: good food freshly cooked in an adjacent kitchen, tableware that needs a dishwasher, a table cloth, cloth napkins and waiters that take orders, give advice when requested, bring food and beverages, and clear the table between courses and after dining. It is common, too, in even slightly upscale restaurants in much of Europe, for there to be a sommelier — a wine steward who specializes in recommending wines to go with your food, taste and budget. Sometimes ordinary fine dining has a buffet and a simple menu with a smaller staff to cut costs and offer lower prices.
When people think of fine dining, French cuisine is usually the first thing that comes to mind, so unsurprisingly, France is a prime destination for people looking to splurge the cash. While Paris is an obvious destination and has a wide selection of fine dining restaurants, you may be surprised to know that it is not particularly highly regarded by the French themselves. Lyon is actually more highly regarded than Paris when it comes to fine dining, and there are also numerous options in France's other cities such as Bordeaux and Strasbourg. Many well-regarded fine-dining establishments are not located in cities but in remote villages, where the restaurants employ a farm-to-table concept and make use of only the freshest ingredients.
The Michelin Tire Company rates restaurants in many countries, but it is in its native France that its ratings are most reliable, not only at the 2- to 3-star level but also for 1-stars in the countryside that serve local cuisine expertly with gracious service. Also notable are the restaurants that get the bib gourmand, as they may not be as fancy as most of the starred ones but are considered by Michelin raters to provide excellent values.
Hong Kong has a truly international fine dining scene, with various European, as well as Japanese, cuisines being represented in the territory. Hong Kong is widely regarded as the best place in the world to experience Chinese fine dining, with many restaurants in Hong Kong's top luxury hotels serving up modern takes on classic Cantonese dishes using only the most exclusive ingredients.
Japan is the land of the traditional kaiseki meals of multiple small plates, which at the best places can be a life-changing experience, paired with great sake just as refined as the finest wines. Kaiseki is typically served at specialist restaurants known as ryotei, though a stay at an expensive ryokan often includes a kaiseki dinner either in the accommodation price or as an optional add-on. While available in Tokyo and many other cities, Kyoto is considered to be the spiritual home of kaiseki.
Japan also has omakase restaurants where the chef makes sushi, sashimi and other courses of his (occasionally, her) choice and you stop when you are full. Within these categories, there are some unusual specializations you might not expect, for example a restaurant that serves meals entirely of chicken dishes including ultra-fresh chicken sashimi. The finest form of sushi is known as edomae-zushi, which uses only the freshest ingredients, and in which the chef would make the sushi in front of you and put it onto your plate. As the name suggests, Tokyo (formerly Edo) is considered to be the spiritual home of this style of sushi.
In recent times, tempura as also entered the repertoire of Japanese fine dining, and Tokyo is home to many specialist tempura omakase restaurants in which the chef deep fries the tempura in front of you and places it on your plate, akin to what is done with edomae-zushi.
Unfortunately for foreigners, most Japanese fine dining establishments do not accept reservations from new customers without an introduction by one of their regular diners. If you are staying in an expensive luxury hotel, your hotel may be able to arrange a reservation for you provided you make your booking way in advance.
Taiwanese people are proud of their Japanese colonial heritage, and Taiwanese fine dining prominently features the fusion of traditional Chinese and Japanese cooking styles. Taipei is naturally a major center for Taiwanese fine dining, though there are also numerous fine dining establishments located in remote rural areas.
While Thailand is better known for is street food, Bangkok is also widely regarded to be Southeast Asia's main fine dining hub, with several restaurants ranked among the world's top 100. While Bangkok's fine dining scene is a truly international one, perhaps the most unique restaurants are those that serve up modern interpretations of traditional Thai cuisine, examples being Nahm and Sorn [dead link]. While very expensive by Thai standards, fine dining in Bangkok is generally much more reasonably priced than similar establishments in the developed world.
As one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world, the United States has a truly international fine dining scene, with options covering the gamut from various European cuisines to several Asian ones as well. Modern American cuisine celebrates the cultural diversity of the United States, taking many leads from French cuisine but also incorporating various cooking styles and ingredients from around the world to give rise to an experience that is uniquely American. Unsurprisingly, New York City is the main fine dining hub of the United States, though the Napa Valley also makes an excellent option, and many other American cities like Seattle, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco also vying for top honors.
Sydney and Melbourne are Australia's main fine dining hubs, though there are also numerous good options in Brisbane, Perth, the Gold Coast and Adelaide. Fine dining in Australia is generally modelled on French cuisine, but also showcases Australia's cultural diversity, bringing together native Australian ingredients with ingredients and cooking styles from various parts of Asia and Europe in a unique style that is often called Modern Australian cuisine.