What Makes Casual Dining Casual?

By | February 14th, 2018

More clubs are offering relaxed dining options for members who want to wear jeans, socialize and share plates.

The “casual” debate is constantly on the table in clubs across the country. Casual, as it applies to food, dress and décor, is generally well-received. But casual—as it applies to how a club serves its members—is not.casual club dining

While each club follows a different set of rules typically set by its Board, nearly all clubs are trending toward a more informal dining experience. Everything from menus, service styles, dress codes and atmospheres promote this approach, without compromising established standards.

Sunset Ridge Country Club (Northfield, Ill.) is in the process of flip-flopping its pub, which seats 40, with its formal dining space, which seats 120, because more members are gravitating toward the casual space to meet, mingle and eat.

“The two dining rooms are right next to each other,” says Executive Chef Scott Webster. “Construction will be finished this winter, and we plan to reopen in February.”

While the rooms will be separated by a two-way fireplace, that’s the only element they’ll share.

Scott Webster, Executive Chef of Sunset Ridge CC, believe menus, dress codes and atmospheres promote a more informal dining approach without compromising established standards.

The pub will feature shared plates as well as wood-fired pizzas from the newly added gas-fired, wood-assisted pizza oven. The fine-dining space, meanwhile, will offer more refined fare.

“This is a great opportunity for the club to focus on what kind of dining options members want,” says Webster. “These will be two distinct offerings, and each will serve a unique purpose.”

Unlike other clubs that struggle when members take a casual approach to reservations, the members of Sunset Ridge CC nearly always call ahead. In fact, Webster only sees about 10 to 15 walk-ins, even on a busy weekend night.

“I’m hoping that doesn’t change once we reopen after construction—but either way, we’ll be prepared,” says Webster, who was previously with Skokie Country Club (Glencoe, Ill.). “Our members have said they need that formal space for business dinners and special events, but they also want a casual space for families.

“By flipping the two rooms and offering different menus and atmospheres in each, we’re better able to satisfy our members’ needs and wants.”

Streamlining the Menu

At Casper (Wyo.) Country Club, Executive Chef Joe Bennet has been hard at work consolidating menus, because Casper CC’s members have been opting to dine more in the club’s casual spaces than its formal ones. Reducing the menu has helped Bennet increase quality, improve kitchen efficiency and improve member satisfaction.

“When I came on board three years ago, we had four different menus running between our casual and fine-dining rooms,” he says. “It was difficult to manage and execute.”

Bennet identified the dishes that were most popular with members, and then created a shorter and tighter menu that changes regularly and includes more specials, to add variety and emphasize seasonal ingredients.

Vincent Muia, Executive Chef of CC of Fairfax, writes separate menus for casual and formal dining.

“Our current menu runs in both our casual and upscale dining rooms,” says Bennet. “The service style and atmosphere are what distinguish each room from the other.”

Casper CC’s casual dining room is quick-service. It boasts a social vibe, with members coming for cocktails and complementary snacks.

“The music is louder and the members are more relaxed when they’re in here,” says Bennet. “The service is quick, too, as many of our members come in for a cocktail and then place an order to go.”

Meeting in the Middle

The Country Club of Fairfax (Va.) recently completed a major renovation to its clubhouse and now offers its members three distinct dining venues. 1947 is the club’s fine-dining outlet. The Rust Tavern—named after the club’s founding President—is its pub space. And the Courthouse Grill is its kid-friendly dining room.

“We offer the same menu in the Rust Tavern and the Courthouse Grill,” says Executive Chef Vincent Muia. “Then we offer a different menu in 1947.”

All menus are changed quarterly and to keep food costs in line, Muia designs them with lots of cross-over. “Whether it’s casual or not comes down to plating and presentation,” he says.

The club’s two casual dining outlets are made that way largely through their atmosphere and décor. The Rust Tavern has a large community table, a bar with a marble counter, and a new beer tap system that uses nitrogen to keep the lines cold throughout the delivery process. Located between 1947 and the Courthouse Grill, it’s where members typically meet for a cocktail before dispersing into the other rooms.

The Courthouse Grill is connected to a “children’s bunker” with games and entertainment for youngsters, and the space also has a dedicated buffet. “Because so many of our members gravitate toward our casual spaces, we’ve been using 1947 to host wine dinners and a chef’s table,” says Muia.

Donna Wheldon, Executive Chef of North Andover CC.

In 1947, jackets aren’t required, but collared shirts are. Meanwhile, members can come as they are in both of the club’s more casual spaces.

Let’s Share

The dress code at North Andover (Mass.) Country Club is similar to that at the CC of Fairfax.

“Our younger members want a casual dining experience,” says Donna Wheldon, Executive Chef. “They want to wear nice jeans and collared shirts. They don’t want to wear jackets and ties.”

Meanwhile, older members are more prominent in the club’s fine-dining room.

“The menu is the same throughout the clubhouse, but shareable plates are more popular in the casual spaces,” says Wheldon, who came to the club two years ago after years as a fine-dining chef in an inn and spa. “And dishes like short rib poutine and buffalo chicken dip [see photos, left] are popular.”

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