Food & Drink

Is this the end of fine dining?

Frédéric Peneau opened Serge et Le Phoque in Fitzrovia last year, but this summer he’s pared back the name and the experience. Have Londoners had their fill of fine dining?

Fine dining in France is part of the culture. It’s on the same level as religion and the military, and the way you serve everything is very set: it’s a room, with tables, waiters, and nothing else. The main thing is the food on the plate. I realised coming here, people don’t like that. In England, people want theatre. They want to have fun first and then after that eat the food. When I walked around I noticed almost all the restaurants have an open kitchen, or a bar opening onto the restaurant – or both. That way, you get authenticity and intimacy.

And I’m the same. When I go to a restaurant I like to have fun and I like to eat well, so usually now I choose a restaurant that’s gourmand, where the food tastes good, but isn’t too fancy. Places like Noma or El Bulli give you a beautiful experience, but it’s not a place you’re going to go more than once. And even the way René Redzepi does fine dining is quite cool – the waiters and the cooks come and explain the dishes and that feels very relaxed.

In Paris, the scene is different, but the attitude is the same. People are more relaxed there too, so you’ll find little bistros where they do fine dining. When I opened Le Chateaubriand, we were one of the first to do this in France. We took an old bistro from the turn of the century and served haute cuisine. Le Chateaubriand was a way of breaking the grasp of tradition, and it was a revolution.

In England, it’s been more of an evolution towards the more relaxed. I started here with fine dining at Serge et Le Phoque. We served a dégustation menu, but I could feel that even if people liked the food, something wasn’t right. I realised people don’t like to eat like that at all.

That doesn’t mean fine dining is dead. The most important thing in a restaurant is to create distinct DNA. So it can be a beautiful restaurant where it’s still very old- fashioned – that can work well – or the opposite.

But the key is the customer. You can have value for money, good service, great design, amazing gastronomy, but the customer is also part of the mayonnaise. It’s a chemistry that’s extremely difficult to get right.

Et voilà. I changed Serge et Le Phoque to Serge. I kept the same quality of the food, but it’s more like tapas than dégustation. People want more freedom, they want to choose what they eat, and then they enjoy it more. If they’re happy, that’s the perfect restaurant.