Nobody cried when the duck a l'orange died.

The only flowers on the grave of the gold-leafed foie gras were foraged by a chef who ditched white tablecloths decades ago.

"Nobody wears white gloves to serve customers in 2017 in any high-end restaurant," says Sid Sahrawat, of Auckland's Sidart and Cassia restaurants. "I haven't had silver service since I left India, where my dad was in the army."

Recently, two of Auckland's top restaurants announced a change of service. Clooney, where eight courses and drinks currently costs $275, will shut up shop in January, reopening with a casual dining menu. Merediths (nine courses with drinks, $245) will close at Christmas. Former owner, Michael Meredith says the Dominion Rd site had been snapped up by an undisclosed team who will offer "a new style" of food.


Fine dining is dead. But, also: Long live fine dining.

"What sets fine dining apart from casual dining is the time it takes a chef to create dishes, source ingredients and present them to the diners," says Sahrawat. "It's carefully crafted and skilfully presented by staff who are experts in their food and wine knowledge."

Last month, the New Zealand Restaurant Association conducted its first consumer dining survey since 2013. Almost half of the respondents said they ate out at least once a week - but 13 per cent noted that in the past year, they had chosen less expensive establishments.

According to the association's latest Foodservice Facts report, while restaurant and cafe sales hit $4.6 billion in the year ended March 2017 (up $174 million on the previous 12 months) the sector with the greatest gain was takeaway food services, up $321 million to $2.4 billion. Would Kiwis rather eat burgers than beef tartar? Fish and chips than ferment du jour?

Parnell restaurant Antoine's opened in 1973. Owner Tony Astle says no young chef could afford to set up a similar business today, but Astle has no plans to change what he believes is the country's last silver service restaurant.

"As long as I'm alive, we will still do the old-fashioned silver service . . . we have the white tablecloth, the silver serviette rings, the damask napkins."

Ties are not compulsory, but last Valentine's Day Astle turned away T-shirt wearing romantics.

"Fine dining is a total concept and I think that's what frightens people . . . it's definitely changed, but the more it changes, the better it is for me. Younger people are quite enjoying it again, because they've never seen it before."


Astle says he can still sell 50g of caviar on cracked ice for $300, even if he has to train the waiter to serve it correctly. (At Antoine's, food is still plated tableside; a recent concession to modernity means the wine list is no longer automatically handed to male customers.)

"I know everyone thinks I'm a geriatric old twat, but I go to a lot of restaurants where if I shut my eyes, I'd think I was in the same one every time . . . I think 'goodness gracious, you need a smack'. They don't really care about you. It's fast, it's quick, it's shared plates, so they don't know how to clear a table."

Tony Astle at Antoines with a fully dressed fine dining table that dinners at the Parnell restaurant are treated to during their silver service meal. Photo / Greg Bowker
Tony Astle at Antoines with a fully dressed fine dining table that dinners at the Parnell restaurant are treated to during their silver service meal. Photo / Greg Bowker

Customers tell Astle they want "a square meal on a round plate".

He says, "if I showed them a photograph of a piece of venison with a lot of leaves on it, they'd throw it at me".

And at Antoine's, though you'll pay $45 for ox tongue in madeira sauce, the vegetables don't cost extra.

"Broccoli is one of my favourites," says Astle. "We trim the stalk and throw it away - but people actually sell that now, don't they?"

Four minutes walk down the hill from Antoine's is Pasture. It seats 20. Food is cooked on an open fire. Last week's $150 eight-course menu included snapper glazed in its own bones and liver.

"Some of the best restaurants in the world did away with tablecloths years ago," says co-owner Laura Verner. "But in terms of how much time, technique, intellectual property, creativity, innovation and leadership is involved - they're the ones that actually set trends and determine how a lot of people are thinking about food. They're striving for excellence and they don't take that lightly. I'd draw comparisons to the worlds of fashion or art - no-one would ever argue fine art is dying."

Pasture's hot hand towels and drink pairings have the hallmarks of fine dining, but, says Verner, "it's amazing to watch people's faces as they walk through the door and there's the smell of smoke and The Cure's playing in the background and I'm there in jeans and tattoos ..."

She says the modern customer is just as likely to be a young person who has saved for dinner in the same way they would for a concert or an Arts Festival event.

"They say to us, 'all we did was not go out for three average meals. Instead we came here and our minds were blown'.

"It's not truffles at any cost and a certain kind of champagne . . . has anyone tried to buy in a whole, pasture-raised organic free farmed local steer and then have the skill and passion to dry-age it? That's what you're paying for. That level of care and integrity and knowledge and supporting local economics."

According to The French Cafe's Simon Wright, people still see fine-dining restaurants as a "special occasion" - but the experience has become warmer and less intimidating.

"No-one puts a napkin over someone's lap anymore. Twenty years ago, you couldn't get into a fine-dining restaurant with a pair of jeans on. Now, jeans cost more than some people's suits."

Wright says fine-dining restaurants will always have a place.

"They are the breeding ground for all the chefs who are marching forward and doing their own things . . . you take fine dining out of the equation and suddenly the knowledge is going to become less and less. We'll be starved of places that really know what they're doing from their foundations."

In February, Herald on Sunday food critic Peter Calder gave The French Cafe his top possible score, but says he wouldn't eat at a fine-dining restaurant by choice.

"The problem with most of it is that it's so tricksy and anxious to impress that they never get round to feeding you and you never get round to having a meal. It's like being asked to watch a Swiss watchmaker assembling a Patek Philippe when all you want is to know what bloody time it is."


Then: Broccoli heads
Now: Broccoli stalks

Then: White damask tablecloths
Now: Sustainably sourced timber tabletops

Then: Oxtail
Now: Nose to tail

Then: Olive oil from Italy
Now: Honey from the beehives on the roof

Then: Flambeed
Now: Burnt, charred, scorched

Then: Printed, leather bound menus
Now: Handwritten, one-off menus