That knot of people at the communal table passing around bruschetta heaped with white anchovies and dollops of whipped ricotta with lemon zest are participating in one of dining’s great shifts: The gastronomic experience—equal parts quality, tradition, and curiosity—is more affordable than ever before. It happened so quickly. One day, a finely crafted meal came part and parcel with a maître ’d’s hand smooch; the next, captains and even tablecloths belonged to the past. Turns out, thinning the team of waiters and losing the linens allowed a larger percentage of the budget to be spent on sourcing terrific ingredients. Less ceremony has also freed chefs to roam the culinary landscape, melding different cuisines rather than hewing to just one. And by reducing dishes to small plates, they’ve encouraged diners to do the same sort of exploration without going into hock. With some discipline, a party of four can drill down into a season or taste their way through several latitudes for little more than $20 a head.
Sure, we miss aspects of the ancien régime: It was nightclubs, not restaurants, that used to leave us hoarse from yelling over the din. A touch of ceremony has a way of making an occasion even more special, too. But the trade-offs are worth it. Amid the tumult of today’s best dining rooms, it is possible to know the moments of pure bliss that are what gastronomy is all about. Punched with a brunoise of celery and a tangy lemon aioli, a $7 lobster roll at Son of a Gun is far more satisfying than any trussed-up mâche-and-lobster salad at four times the price. Tar & Roses sometimes offers a $7 platter of wood-roasted English peas that have you wondering why you never ate peas this way before—the charred pods speckled with Maldon sea salt capture the essence of spring. So much of traditional fine dining was just uninspired custom. At Savory in Malibu the centerpiece is a sprig of wild fennel. Plucked outside the restaurant and set in a tiny planter of pebbles, it’s loads more evocative than any tired rose.