'Fine-casual' dining trend growing in San Francisco, where patrons are their own waiters

A growing dining trend is sweeping urban areas, and leaving patrons to act as their own waiters at higher-end restaurants.

This “fine-casual” trend, as it’s often called, is a hybrid of fine dining and fast food. People wait in line to order their meal and pay at the counter, then are often given a number to take back to their seat while they wait for their food, thus eliminating the need for service staff.  

The food, however, is typically made from scratch,with healthy ingredients, by chefs with fine-dining backgrounds, and the drink menus don’t shy away from beer, wine and craft cocktails.

“It is a new type of dining,” Marko Sotto, owner of Barzotto, a fine casual spot in San Francisco, told Skift Table. “Fifteen years ago, people were used to either fast food or full service, and there was nothing in-between. I think it’s just going to be a matter of time for people to get it.”

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At Media Noche, a Cuban sandwich shop that opened in March, the dining experience is more elevated than a typical counter-service spot, but the fine-casual concept still prevails.

“We wanted to make the experience of Media Noche different. That means having real stemware for the wine, silverware that’s communal but not plastic, and beautiful bowls and plates,” owner Jessie Barker, who opened Media Noche with Madelyn Markoe, told Bon Appétit.

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Apparently the concept is working, as demand for this type of spot is growing. According to a survey from market research firm Mintel, 69 percent of consumers want to see more fine-casual restaurants where they can eat high-quality food in a laid back environment, Skift Table reports.  

“They want to eat out three or four times a week…at the same time, they don’t necessarily want all the hubbub,” Sotto said.

And while many of these fine-casual spots are relatively affordable, the restaurant owners note that patrons often don’t mind paying a higher price for the quality food.

“In San Francisco, you have tons of young professionals who make good money, but they’re always working,” Evan Rich, who opened RT Rotisserie with his wife, Sarah, told Bon Appétit. “They have the money to go out to fancy restaurants, but during the week they want something that tastes great yet doesn’t require a four-course meal and that they can take home if they want.”

Popular San Francisco spot Souvla, which serves up Greek food at three Bay-area locations, has been so successful with its fine-casual format that other restaurants look to them as a model of how it should be done.

“The small menu is so appealing and the place itself so charming that you almost forget, as a diner, that you have to do much of the work of dining out yourself. You scout your own table. You fetch and fill your own water glass. And if you’d like another glass of wine, you go back to the counter,” New York Times reporter Emily Badger wrote of the West Coast hotspot.

Badger also notes that Souvla, which first opened in 2014 by Charles Bililies, has become the Uber of the restaurant industry, with everyone wanting to replicate their success.

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“Souvla was the beginning of this whole new onslaught of things that in every single way look like a full-service restaurant — nice décor; good wine list; tasty, healthy foods. It’s much more chef- and ingredient-driven,” Gwyneth Borden, the executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, told the Times. “But it’s ‘take a number and go to a table.’”

And by eliminating traditional waiters, hosts and sommeliers, these restaurants are able to serve more people per day than traditional sit-down spots and operate at a lower cost, which is increasingly difficult in a city with a minimum wage set to hit $15 an hour by 2022.

RT Rotisserie can seat 49 diners at a time, but Rich told Bon Appétit he often serves 300 to 350 meals every day. Souvla, which seats just 40 people, even more impressively serves around 900 meals a day, according to the Times.

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“Fine dining as a business model is fundamentally flawed,” Bililies told Bon Appétit. “There are so many line items when you’re operating a high-end restaurant, that the higher up you go in the spectrum, the less there is at the end of the month.”

“Labor is incredibly expensive and incredibly challenging to find,” Madelyn Markoe, who opened the Cuban sandwich shop Media Noche in March with Jessie Barker, told Bon Appétit.

Michelle Gant is a writer and editor for Fox News Lifestyle.