Are Local Restaurants Too Informal, Too Inexpensive?

DW of St. Paul wrote about a unique problem: He finds our local restaurants too informal, and far too inexpensive. I wrote back to him with my advice. A few days later he sent the same message to my editor, still seeking an answer; I assume my original reply got stuck in his spam filter. He also claims to have sent this letter to many others, including the General Managers of Seven, Cosmos, and more. This letter-writing frenzy happened a few weeks ago, but over time DW’s thoughts have stuck with me, namely because they seem to highlight the difficulty that General Managers have when balancing the dictum that a customer is always right with the rest of life.

So, I thought this might be a fun exercise. I’ll reprint DW’s letter, and the response I sent. If you were the GM of a restaurant receiving this letter, what would you say to this person?

Dear Dara,
My wife and I moved to the Twin Cities from West Palm Beach, Florida, last September. Our second wedding anniversary is coming up in November and I want to take her out for a very special dining experience. First class all the way. The best food. All the glitz. Everything. And with two large cities right next to each other, I find it totally not understandable why in this entire metro area, there is not one single restaurant that cater’s [sic] to “formal” dining (or what might be called the “formal dining experience”). If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, below is a copy of an email that I sent to Seven Steakhouse (somewhat similar emails also went out to Manny’s, Cosmos, The Capital Grille, and I think Kozy’s). I tried sending an email to Andrew Zimmern, as I enjoy his show and as he is based here, I thought he could point me in the right direction. But so far, my emails have garnered no responses. Talk about frustrating. Maybe you can point me in the right direction. In any case, here is the email that I sent to Seven Steakhouse:

What would it cost me to get Seven to, for just one night, have what might be called a “Formal Night?” In other words, for that one night, make attire mandatory formal (customers must come dressed in formal evening attire). I ask because while I like a lot of what I see on the Dinner menu, though I couldn’t find any wines that were to my taste (but maybe you could get one from either a supplier or from La Belle Vie), I’m looking for a restaurant that offers “formal” dining, if just for this one night.

This will be a special occasion for my wife and I, and I am looking for a 5-star restaurant where attire is mandatory (or at least customarily) formal and where I can easily drop $1000 or $2000 on dinner for two. I’ve been searching on the Internet, I’ve been asking people that should know, and so far I just get blank stares. I suppose we could fly all the way back to Palm Beach and have dinner at L’Escalier at The Breakers hotel on Palm Beach Island. But that’s a long way to go for a first class meal.

So, far, it looks like the top four restaurants in the Twin Cities are La Belle Vie, Cosmos, Sevens, and Manny’s (and I did not care for the menu at La Belle Vie). Manny’s appears to be the most expensive and seems to have just about the best menu (the menu was very impressive and I have no issue whatsoever with the prices) though Seven was close behind, La Belle Vie seems to have the best wine list (though I don’t care for their menu; Manny’s is much more to my taste), and Cosmos has a menu that is pretty darn good (just not quite as expansive as Seven’s or Manny’s), and they have the Louis XIII Cognac I like to drink (but I just couldn’t find any wines I like). Seven had a very impressive menu (though there were a few things lacking, probably because I don’t like sushi, which was a disappointment), It has the Louis XIII Cognac I like to drink, the dessert menu was sort of adequate, but I couldn’t find any wines to my liking (a excellent vintage Chateau Margeux would be nice).

But NONE of these restaurants require formal attire. People can just walk in off the street in jeans, a shirt, and tennis shoes (or “business casual” if you prefer). That’s just fine at a restaurant where dining attire is casual. I do that myself sometimes. But I don’t want that for this occasion. I want to come with my wife to a restaurant, in formal attire, and be surrounded by other customers dressed in formal attire.

Doesn’t the Twin Cities area have even one restaurant like that?

Want an example? This is what I’m looking for in the Twin Cities: L’Escalier

Isn’t there any way that Seven could accommodate this for just one special night? You could even make it a “community” event. Advertise a “Formal-Only Night” (call it maybe “Rockefeller Night at Seven”) that is by reservation only. Maybe charge a $100 per reservation (for two or less) reservation fee (over and above what people would pay for their meals and drinks). An additional $50 per person fee could be charged for parties of more than two. This could become an annual Metro event. All I’d ask is that you do it the first or second week of November, as that’s when our wedding anniversary is.

— DW, of St. Paul

And here’s the reply I sent:

Dear DW,
No offense, but I think you’re kind of going about this backwards. Instead of judging the restaurants from the websites, I think you should go to them. You’ll quickly find that La Belle Vie is indeed formal — and the folks there would be happy to order your special cognac. It’s a lot easier to get a cognac into a restaurant than to repurpose another one’s entire mission for one night. Spending $1,000 or $2,000 on a single dinner is rarely done here. It’s not really in our Midwestern character. If it’s particularly important to you to spend a lot of money, I’d guess a plane ticket is your best option — a lot of people I know who want to splurge book a hotel in Chicago for the night and go someplace like Alinea. Manny’s is very much about informality. If you want tuxedo-appropriate, I don’t think you’ll like that when you’re there. With D’Amico Cucina closing, the only real formal restaurant we have is La Belle Vie—but La Belle Vie is a world-class restaurant. I’d encourage you to look more closely at their menu. In addition to the tastings, they offer an “a la carte” menu, with options like a grilled beef tenderloin. And if sides like the marrow croquette (a fried ball of dough made with beef marrow) don’t appeal to you, you can certainly ask them to leave that croquette in the kitchen. In fact, they are so customer-service oriented there that if you asked for the beef tenderloin with a side of the patatas bravas (fried potatoes) from the halibut dish I know they would be happy to comply.
Hope that helps!
— Dara

And now, let the crowd-sourcing begin. What would you tell DW of St. Paul?