Fast food seems like a bad combination these days. The new combo? Fast casual.
Enter an even newer concept: Fine dining fare in a pop-up format made accessible, easy, and more affordable, with an ever-changing rotation of recipes from the globe’s top chefs. That’s the mission of Chefs Club Counter, which opened in New York City’s NoLiTa neighborhood on March 31. It’s part of a nationwide movement in the restaurant industry from fast food to fast-casual eateries with higher quality food.
“It’s not for a certain category of people or just for Saturdays. This is a restaurant for every day. The idea is to have a great bottle of wine but in your shorts and T-shirt,” says Chef Didier Elena, culinary director of Chefs Club Counter and the fancier Chefs Club. “It’s about fun food with great ingredients. It’s giving anybody the access to simplicity and quality — what everybody is trying to do.”
The Counter’s more experienced, formal cousin lies two blocks north in the same hood. Opened in late 2014 in partnership with Food & Wine, Chefs Club is a unique restaurant where top chefs from around the nation and globe visit for a limited time to create tasting menus for dinner guests in a sleek, brick-walled atmosphere where a suspended Himalayan pink rock of salt hovers, encased in glass. Enjoy full table service here.
It’s fine dining in an interactive, ever-changing way.
Then there’s Chefs Club Counter, the first fine fast-casual restaurant of its kind from Chefs Club, which was founded by Belgian entrepreneur Stephane De Baets. It’s set in a vintage ’50s era style designed by architect Fernando Santangelo.
Walk in, and you’ll see a pole flashing neon images of food, slogans, cartoon images, and chefs. The servers behind the wrap-around counter wear Frenchy horizontal-striped shirts and help you from behind the counter in front of the menu board and payment register, and along the counter where the coffee and wine bar area continues. That counter turns to the right along the back of the 56-seat restaurant, where the chefs cook from the open kitchen.
Elena says it’s a chef’s dream. “The rotation of guest chefs isn’t according to a specific time. Now there are no rules. Rules destroy everything,” says Elena, a 20-year Alain Ducasse alumnus. The creative freedom means the select dishes are available in limited quantity for a limited time, and that time is changeable.
On the VIP opening preview party, Alvin Cailan of the egg-sandwich concept Eggslut in Los Angeles created a bruschetta with a Sriracha mayo-like spread, creamy scrambled eggs, and chives. One of the world’s most recognized chefs, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, provided his grass-fed beef slider recipe with avocado and caramelized onions that had the crowd clamoring. George Mendes of multiple Michelin-starred Aldea created Arroz de Pato, a paella-inspired dish of duck confit, chourico, black olives, citrus purée, and duck cracklins.
“Alvin [Cailan] from Eggslut, I met him a few months ago when I was in California,” Elena says. “We choose the chefs by the food, by feeling, by knowing the person. It’s always something moving around.”
This trend breaks the traditional boundaries of different restaurant concepts.
Called Quick Service Restaurants (QSR) in the industry, fast food concepts such as McDonald’s, KFC, Arby’s, Burger King, Wendy’s offer $5 meals on average, medium-quality food, limited menus, and no table service, according to The Balance, a financial advice online publication. Casual dining such as TGI Fridays, Applebee’s, and Chili’s, prices meals at about $15 on menus with a wide range of choices that require a fork and knife. There’s full table service, often alcohol, and nicer atmosphere.
And then there are fast casual places such as Panera Bread Company, Chipotle Mexican Grill, and Boston Market. A fast-casual restaurant blends the speed and convenience of fast food spots, but with better ingredients like freshly baked gourmet breads and organic produce, as well as a more inviting sit-down atmosphere found in casual restaurants. There’s often an open kitchen.
“One of the hottest trends at the moment is fast casual, which is slightly more upscale (and therefore more expensive) than fast food,” Lorri Mealey said in her Different Types of Restaurant Concepts piece for The Balance on April 3.
With a 219 percent sales spike in 2015, the fast-casual chain with the largest system-wide sales increase, MOD Pizza, tripled in size in 2015, according to Restaurant Business. The company touts its strong employee culture, organic dough, housemade sauce, and hand-spun shakes as reasons for its success. An unlimited number of pizza toppings for one price probably helps too.
“Fast-casual restaurants make up only about 8 percent of the restaurant industry’s sales, but the segment continues to grow by double digits,” according to the editors at Restaurant Business.
Fine food shouldn’t be limited to a celebratory $200 meal for a special occasion, Elena says. “Now, it’s fun, everyday. Behind every item there’s a well-known chef, so there’s a lot of thought behind it.”
— Head photo: Amy Sowder/Chowhound.