Casual Fine Dining Wars

November 1, 2011

Walking into Joey Bentall, in the Bentall One tower downtown, I might not have guessed that I was entering one of the hottest restaurant memes in the country. I might not have guessed, that is, unless I’d done a little research in advance. With its black leather and purple accents, with its glittering palm tree chandeliers and glistening white marble bar tables, Joey is arguably the pinnacle expression of a dining experience known as “casual fine,” born in the West and just now beginning to colonize Toronto. Casual room with fine cuisine. That’s the idea. And it’s been a big idea for the people I’ve come to Joey to see.

That would be Bus Fuller and his son Jeff, who—along with Jeff’s brother Stan Fuller—own Earls and the Joey restaurants, as well as a minority position in Cactus Club. Their casual-fine empire, with 100 locations and 13,000 employees continent-wide, is most notable to Vancouverites in the form of two Joey/Earls/Cactus Club clusters: the first along Broadway between Burrard and Hemlock, the second downtown along Burrard from around Robson to the Bentall Centre.

Add Browns Social House—founded in 2004 by Scott Morison, co-founder of Cactus Club—to the mix and this restaurant subsector truly is a phenomenon. Four chains with over two dozen locations in the Lower Mainland that are so similar in menu and design (and music playlist and waitress skirt-tightness) that if you were led blindfolded from one to the next, unmasked only to eat and glance around, you’d think you were passing from room to room in a single, sprawling restaurant, the product of a single creative imagination.

Almost 50 sampled dishes later, however, I know that impression isn’t accurate. There are distinctions in this multiplying herd. There is a taxonomy of species. And, most importantly, there’s a very smart business model at the heart of it that has surprisingly little to do with being either “casual” or “fine.”

At least, not in the way those words are typically applied.

Ask Bus Fuller about the genesis of casual-fine dining and the lounge-weathered, 82-year-old oligarch will point to the original Earls on Calgary Trail in Edmonton, opened in 1983 when he was 54. He’d been running Fuller’s Family Restaurants and a string of A&W franchises up to that point (and a “burger and ice cream” joint in Sunburst, Montana, prior to that). The Edmonton “concept”—as he refers to all restaurant ideas and their evolutions—is the starting point because that was the first time he thought to deliberately target the gap between white-tablecloth rooms and family restaurants.

It was a strong idea. Bus Fuller remembers lineups of mostly young people out the front door, people who seemed to really respond to the novelty of the funky-’80s décor and to the casual menu, from which they ordered great quantities of burgers, nachos, potato skins, and beer. It was a place where a younger diner could both afford to eat and afford to be seen.

That strategy was a shrewd response on Fuller’s part to dining patterns in the 1980s, when—as in all other consumer realms—status and fashionability were like twin winds, steadily rising. Earls in Edmonton saw monthly revenues quintuple in the next 18 months. No surprise, then, that the idea caught quickly in Vancouver. In 1988, with three Earls up and running, Cactus Club was opened by two Earls alumni, Richard Jaffray and Scott Morison, with seed financing from the Fullers. The two followed the Earls model closely; they used the diner concept as their benchmark, positioning Cactus Club a few degrees in food and environment quality above White Spot and Denny’s. They had chicken pot pie and hot turkey sandwiches. And at night, a familiar format: burgers, nachos, potato skins, and a whole lot of beer. For those who ate at Earls and Cactus Club during these years, if the menu overlap wasn’t obvious, the ceramic parrots in one and the cow-patterned upholstery in the other were clues to common strategy.

With the entrance of a Joey Tomato’s—which Jeff Fuller launched in 1992—the casual-fine-dining sector got more competitive. Jeff’s original idea (his brother Stan was by then in charge of Earls) stuck closely to the Earls/Cactus strategy, only this time targeted Italian cuisine. With its wood-oven pizza and lighter pastas, Joey Tomato’s was positioned as more casual than, say, Caffé dé Medici, yet more lively and contemporary than family places like Gallo d’Oro.

By 1999, however, Jeff Fuller was becoming aware that “upscaling” was going to be required—better food, slicker rooms. The wisdom of that insight can be seen in retrospect. Everybody was becoming a foodie in Vancouver around this time and the goalposts of upmarket and downmarket dining were shifting. Fine dining in 1980 was a hushed room with a dessert flambéed tableside. In those rooms, the chef knew what was best and the diner trusted the implied hierarchy. Fine dining by 2000 was a house full of connoisseurs—taking the quest for better food more seriously and more personally—who demanded the chef prove the diners’ sophistication. Call it the Food Network Effect. It meant restaurants had to show the newest refinements or risk looking dated. Diva at the Met was in the moment, you might say. Earls/Cactus/Joey were starting to look, in comparison, like the Fuller’s Family Restaurants of old.

Cue upscaling. Joey Tomato’s eventually became Joey Restaurants and ditched the brick ovens. Earls lost the parrots just as cowprints disappeared from Cactus Club. Scott Morison split from Richard Jaffray to start an upscale bar/eatery called Browns Socialhouse, the vision for which was considered so Cactus-derivative by Jaffray that a lawsuit resulted. It was unsuccessful, but the battle lines were drawn. Booths went from vinyl to leather. Thin-crust pizzas became flatbread. Seared tuna rained from heaven onto every casual-fine menu in town. Light fixtures morphed. Pad Thai arrived. Curry bowls. Beer never left, but it went artisanal. Burgers, too, which earned names like the Hickory or the Hi-rise or the Bronx.

Competition to hit that crucial gap above the schlock and just below the finer rooms in the city grew fierce. That had been Bus Fuller’s plan all along. “What made the concepts successful,” he said recently over lunch at Joey Bentall, “is that each guy has had autonomy to do what they want to do. Where problems start is when everyone is under one roof, because then some concepts get forgotten as everyone focuses on the one that’s doing best.”

Rivalry is a good motivator, in other words. Bringing us to the Name-Brand- Chef Arms Race. In fairness, Browns never quite participated here, though they have a 25-year industry veteran director of kitchen operations in Brian Everett. But among the Fuller-related concepts, it was gloves off starting in 1999, when two hot young cooks named Michael Noble (Calgary’s Catch) and Chris Mills (Diva at the Met) competed on the Japanese cult-hit TV show Iron Chef. Noble was the lead, Mills the assistant. They drew Morimoto and the secret ingredient was potato. They lost by a hair but both had new jobs within a few years: Noble became director of culinary and product development at Earls. Mills went to Joey as VP culinary, now executive chef.

Then, in 2005, came the chef move that really made the news. In a parallel that’s only uncanny until you consider the competition underway, Rob Feenie (Lumière) competed on Iron Chef America. He drew Morimoto and the secret ingredient was crab. He won, handily. And a few years later, he also found himself in a new job: food concept architect at Cactus Club.

Which brought us to an interesting moment in the escalation, an upper boundary of kinds. Assuming the casual atmosphere and good prices could be maintained, with names such as these in the kitchen—chefs who had already run some of the finest rooms in the city—surely there would be nothing left to refine in the casual-fine-dining concept. Right?

Let’s have a look at casual-fine dining as it really exists in the city. And let me start by saying that 50 dishes is a hell of a lot. Maybe one fish taco blurs into another at some point. Or one television playing the X Games, or one more playlist incorporating “I Want You to Want Me.” But that said, after repeatedly sampling the four main concepts defining Vancouver’s casual-fine scene, I can’t deny the distinctions either.

In terms of delivered food quality, might as well come right to it: Cactus Club is way ahead. Feenie now lives in Winnipeg, but he commutes often and obviously has an excellent team here who have trained their kitchen into smart shape. Here’s a confession for you: I enjoyed my meal at Cactus Club Bentall Five more than any of the three I had at Lumière in the Feenie years there. Dishes were less fussy and pretentious, while the intensity and freshness of flavour and the excellence of technique were on par.

The light and crisp flatbread, the carpaccio with pickled shallots and capers, the tuna tataki on its bed of papaya slaw with yuzu dressing—none of these ran riot with either sauces or flavours, yet they schmecked, my highest praise. The mains, even better. The pineapple hoisin short rib sounded suspect to me but had a balancing trace of ginger and hint of necessary heat from the spicy bean sauce. The halibut with orange saffron was perfect, flavours light and fresh. The hunter chicken was as it should be: foresty and filling. This is high-end bistro/trattoria food, superbly executed, easily as good as that at the best independents, like Brasserie and Campagnolo (to name just two) that are turning out  technically sound, flavour-forward plates.

So, fine food? Check. But casual atmosphere? The room recalls a business-class airport lounge out of Monocle magazine with a soundtrack by Celebrities. There were crowds, make no mistake. Young dudes in suits and pointy shoes, women of all ages primping in the glass and chrome surfaces. Casual it ain’t. In fact it’s just today’s version of the stuffy fine-dining rooms of 25 years ago, people nervously checking reflections to make sure they’re measuring up. Which is a shame, because very good food and service notwithstanding, I wouldn’t rush back.

Browns, it has to be said, succeeds at being casual. Morison describes an atmosphere “as comfortable as my living room…but without the dog hair.” And that sounds about right. We sat on the patio at the Point Grey location, but the banquettes were full inside with groups and couples, and the bar felt like a local. Very relaxed. Which describes the menu as well, featuring appetizers like calamari, nachos, pork dry ribs, and General Tao’s chicken. Bar food, basically, with sauces and seasonings tasting bottled and prefab. The parmesan-crusted stuffed chicken had its ’70s-era charm, a cheesy explosion awaiting each bite. I ordered the ribs, Browns’ splash-out item at $25, which arrive unadorned but for a blob of slaw as you might find at a church picnic in Abbotsford. Unpretentious, but sauced so blandly I can’t even remember what they tasted like. The winner was my son’s taco pizza with chili ground beef and corn chip garnish. Assertively casual. He loved it. But then, he’s seven.

Earls bears a similarity to Browns in that the granddaddy of casual-fine actually is casual. Music uptempo but non-intrusive, staff friendly. The room full of unselfconscious regulars. But the menu has obviously been tweaked upscale since the burger-and-beer days. Appies still include calamari and dry ribs, but also prawn tacos and edamame, ginger shrimp gyoza and two of those now-ubiquitous oversize and oversauced sushi rolls. (Can we stop with the special mayonnaise rolls, please?)

Where the menu really hits an interesting conceptual note is in the main courses. Call this Fine Dining, 1989. Things blackened and cedar-planked, or “Mediterranean” and served over linguine. I enjoyed it, which says something since none of it was particularly flavourful or well prepared. The shrimp tacos were meek (lime? cilantro?) and the Jeera chicken curry tasted like Sharwood’s. The parmesan chicken had been brutalized stovetop to the point of having small burns. Yet I found myself smiling because the whole meal was a backwards glance to what Earls might have looked like if the Fuller’s Family Restaurant group had gone “fine dining” in the mid ’80s: well intentioned and enthusiastic, unpretentious and imperfect. Great food is often too full of itself. You can’t say Earls is “great” food, but it’s also not full of itself. Nine times out of 10, I’d take the latter.

Which brings us to Joey, by far the most perplexing of the four restaurants in question. My lunch with Bus and Jeff Fuller at Joey Bentall One was excellent. Supervised directly by Chris Mills, there wasn’t a misstep. I’ll mention two items: an heirloom tomato salad with burrata cheese, and a lightly herbed salmon served with butter sauce over mashed potatoes. Without straining for effect, these are flavourful, simple yet sophisticated dishes that reflect the true measure of the culinary brains involved. Having eaten in the back Wine Room with the soundtrack turned down low, I thought: casual-fine? They nailed it.

But when I went back to have my own dinner at Joey Bentall a few days later, the wheels came off. At night out front, Joey Bentall is Cactus Club to the power of 10 in the pretentious glitz department. Ian Schrager meets Gordon Gekko. Gilt-framed televisions, white and black accents, chrome everywhere. Flocked wallpaper and lounge chairs that leave you chest high to the table. Plus this gargantuan gothic black light fixture at the back that looms over the restaurant.

The burrata came this time with a single slab of unripe beefsteak tomato. The flatbread was soggy, the lobster ravioli over-salted. And my steak plate was a trainwreck. Mills is apparently taking the accompanying eggroll-wrapped mashed potatoes off the menu, which is a very good call. The steak itself, while rare as ordered, was un-seared. That’s a kitchen screw-up, a line cook trying to hit rare without enough flame. But it also speaks to the risk of putting “Chris Mills Made This” across the top of all your menus. Chris Mills placed fifth in Bocuse d’Or. He cooked at the James Beard House. He lost to Morimoto by two freaking points. He’s a monster. Chris Mills did not make that steak.

But after our great lunch, I felt honour-bound to give Joey another chance. And it was miles better the third time, though no dish excelled. The lettuce wraps were fine, middle-of-the-road Chinese-flavoured. The sliders were…sliders. Blindfolded, I defy anyone to distinguish that patty from A&W. The steak was done correctly, ditto the roast chicken, but both were again over-salted. The spaghetti with meatballs was tasty, but creamed tomato sauce with Kobe beef makes for too much fat. The dish needed acid, it needed garlic. (Ironically, that plate also needed a bit of salt.) Casual-fine? Since my lunch was so good, I’m forced to conclude that without Mills’s direct guidance, Joey misses both marks.

And then we got the bill. Without wine, HST, or dessert, three people eating an appetizer and main will run you about $100 at Joey. Call it $85 at Browns, $90 at Earls, $120 at Cactus Club. What’s interesting about this price point is that it’s safely short of the high-end rooms, like West or Hawksworth. But it’s bang on the cost of quality independents where the food is consistently good, places like Refuel and Ensemble, which has a television superstar chef of its own in Dale Mackay.

Which may seem like a paradox, but looking around Joey Bentall on my second time there, the logic of the whole thing really came to me. I’d just noticed all the eye-in-the-sky video surveillance bulbs, at least 10 by my count, probably because I’d just been handed the bill, which ended up at $190 with wine, dessert, HST, and tip. All that for a dinner that fell well short of a thumbs-up. A dinner that was neither a casual experience nor a fine dining one. Or, at least, a dinner that was neither of those things until it dawned on me that I was applying the words backward.

Casual fine dining, as I’d set out to explore it, isn’t about casual rooms and fine food. It’s about casual food and rooms that make you feel fine. Even at Cactus Club, where the food is indeed fine, the menu strains to be casual. Calamari, dry ribs, chicken wings. There’s even a blackened chicken breast. Jaffray says his menu strategy is to “take care of the no vote,” meaning take care of the one person who might otherwise divert a big group from showing up. The person who doesn’t really pay attention to food at all and might be intimidated. Make that person feel comfortable. Put them in a room that makes them feel fashionable. Then charge the table enough to convince them they’re doing something fine.

From a business standpoint, that’s a sweet place to be. And I should have understood it earlier, because although I’m not really part of the sweet-spot demographic for this dining phenomenon today, I was once. I was there when it started on Calgary Trail in Edmonton, long ago. I recall the lineups, having been part of the younger set that responded to Earls: kids who didn’t know very much about food but liked the funky ’80s decor and ordered great quantities of burgers, nachos, and beer.

We weren’t eating fine food back then. It was familiar, casual food. But looking around at the ceramic parrots, adjusting the skinny lapels of our black Le Chateau jackets, checking out the bill (which always somehow hit right at the very top end of what we and our student loans could actually afford), we caught our reflection in the glass.

And we felt fine.

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