Recently, there’s been a new type of restaurant making waves in the industry. Somewhere in between trendy fast casuals and fine dining, these restaurants are offering the experience of attentive service and creative cuisine while remaining approachable and hip. The restaurant design world has begun to embrace the name “polished casual” for the category; but what does that mean?
What makes a restaurant polished casual?
Polished casual is somehow simultaneously difficult to define and easy to conceptualize -- rejecting both the rigidness of fine dining and the lack of excitement that has overtaken casual dining spaces, they cater towards a clientele that wants a quality dining experience without the fuss. After the rise of the fast casual concept (think Chipotle or Noodles & Company), more restaurants began to capitalize on combining the demand for inventive, healthy foods with the recent obsession with craft beers and Instagram-worthy cocktails, wrapped in a package of carefully designed spaces and fantastic service. The result? A restaurant that has customers raving.
For the numbers-oriented, restaurant categories could once be grouped by a ballpark check total and the presence or absence of alcohol: for example, for one customer, fast food would have a final bill of less than $9 and no drink availability, a traditional casual restaurant may finish out at $12-20 with a drink menu available, and a fine dining establishment averages $50+ with extensive wine and cocktail offerings. However, fast casual and polished casual have begun to disrupt this method of categorization, as they begin to encroach on already established territories and blur the boundaries. Polished casual bills, depending on the type of food, location, and branding, can range from bill totals of $25 to over $50, placing it on the upper end of casual tipping into fine dining. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
To justify the price point, polished casual restaurants draw on the best of fast casual, traditional casual, and fine dining to craft a unique experience for their customers. Transparently sourced, imaginative, and healthy food choices are served in a designed space full of panache, and customers get the experience of upscale dining without the pomp and circumstance of white tablecloths and black tie dress codes.
What do they look like?
Sometimes, the old writing adage of “show, don’t tell” is really the best way to define a concept. We’ve chosen some trailblazing polished casual restaurants who are finding success with creative dishes and spaces.
Image via Plano Magazine
North Italia boasts pasta dishes and pizzas that are “handmade with love, from scratch, daily.” Its bright, spacious dining spaces invite customers to experience dining that highlights simple food and good company. Keeping it casual, diners have the option to eat their meals at the bar or at large wood communal tables. Thirteen locations are already open around the country, with three more planned.
Del Frisco's Grille
Image via rddmag.com
With 25 locations across the United States, Del Frisco’s Grille takes the familiar concept of a steakhouse to a new level with a stylish interior and “to die for” meat entrees. Focused on creating a fantastic menu out of locally-sourced ingredients and regional flavors, each of Del Frisco’s locations is linked by their polished, yet casual and comfortable. Reviewers note that the prices may raise eyebrows, but it’s the happening place to be seen.
Image by Merrick Ales
Austin micro-chain, The Grove Wine Bar and Kitchen, opened its fourth location this year after ts first spot opened in Westlake almost a decade ago. Since then, it’s gained a loyal and committed following. Designed by Design Hound, The Grove was built around the simple notion that great food and wine are for everyone to enjoy. Other polished casual chains take note: the space is approachable, design-forward, and vibrant. Wine bottles displayed throughout the space act as the defining design element. Blue and green upholstery adorn the steel frame chairs and barstools for a refined industrial vibe.
With casual dining chains on the decline, polished casual restaurants have already established themselves as a concept in high demand. And with the range of design and menu options available, we expect to see more players in the category striving to be the next hot dining destination.