Fine dining ‘losing snob appeal’

Simon and Rena Gueller of The Box Tree in Ilkley.
Simon and Rena Gueller of The Box Tree in Ilkley.
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A new class of restaurant clientele are increasingly splashing out on Michelin-starred dining while turning their noses up at fast-food chains, according to a study released today.

Stuffy fine-dining establishments largely populated by businessmen with expense accounts have gradually been transformed by a wave of middle-class diners, according to University of Cambridge academic Christel Lane.

Top chefs including Tom Kerridge, Marcus Wareing and Ruth Rogers, contributed to her new book, The Cultivation Of Taste, described as the first sociological study of Michelin-starred restaurants.

Ms Lane said: “The snobbery of fine-dining is gradually being eroded. It hasn’t completely disappeared - particularly in restaurants with three Michelin stars.

“But there is a new developing group of largely professional people who are interested in the origin of their food and, in the same way they might plan a mini-break, are willing to save up for the occasional treat in a one or two-star restaurant.”

And while such customers are as likely to dine in a local restaurant or curry house as a two-starred establishment, they would stop short at high street burgers, she said.

“They have diverse tastes and don’t mind what a meal costs - people can’t afford fine dining all the time and wouldn’t want it if they could,” she added.

“But most draw the line at McDonald’s and other chains.”

Rena Gueller, director at Michelin-starred The Box Tree in Ilkley said she had noticed a definite change in clientele, as the restaurant moved towards creating a more accessible, welcoming atmosphere.

“People are far less intimidated by Michelin star restaurants when they were ten years ago,” she said. “If I think back years ago, it was hushed and awkward, and people would be nervous, now there’s a much broader reach.”

And cost is a factor. Mrs Gueller said she’d received letters from people who had ate at the Box Tree in the 1960s, when a meal would cost a huge proportion of their salary.

“Now it’s not the same. At The Box Tree we believe that we’re a destination restaurant, and think it’s an important to create a dining experience. But having a star shouldn’t mean putting your prices up.

“If you go to some of the high street pizzerias, you will easily spend £50 on a three or four course meal. Our dinner menus start at £35 - there’s not the gap there once was.”

The Old Vicarage, Sheffield’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, has been owned by chef Tessa Bramley for 27 years. Over recent years, she’s noticed a growing number of younger diners, particularly university students celebrating 21st birthdays.

She said: “People are wanting to try new things, and especially for people celebrating anniversaries or birthdays, the demographic has changed.

“If you look at other Michelin-star places in the county, we’re all very ‘Yorkshire’, and consequently we’ve never been stuffy. That idea is in people’s perception, but once they’ve been they realise it’s not the case.

Tommy Banks, head chef and owner at Michelin-starred The Black Swan at Oldstead, agrees that creating a relaxed, hospitable atmosphere is key.

He said: “Here the chefs serve the food, you won’t be served by waiters in dickie bows. We get to meet people, interact with them and answer their questions about our food.

“People are a lot more discerning about food now, and won’t stand for poor service.”