Challenging Polished Casual Dining Concepts to Look Up

Polished casual dining is a relatively new term for restaurants. It defines those that have higher quality food, service, and atmosphere than typical casual dining, as well as higher prices.  These restaurants fill the gap between casual and fine dining, similar to how “fast casual” squeezed between fast food and casual dining. Foodable’s article How Polished Casual Brands Blur the Lines Between Segments, explains it this way, “These polished casual restaurants are elevating the culinary experience for guests, so much so that they are blurring the lines between casual dining and fine dining. They offer a refined atmosphere, superior food offerings, and especially attentive service. When a diner enters these restaurants, they can easily see that they are in a category above a Chili’s or Applebee’s.”

 Here’s the high-level spectrum of restaurants, with a few examples:

Fast food to fine dining

Our client, Uncle Julio’s, sits squarely in the polished casual dining category.  Their incredible Mexican food is made from scratch, they provide remarkable service, and many of their restaurants are new with “rustic-modern” interiors that make for an aspirational atmosphere. 

Uncle Julio's Food and Atmosphere

While the polished casual dining restaurants have carved out this “in-between” space, the competition for diners is intense.  The pressure to lure guests away from casual dining is real. As a result, it is tempting to study the practices of casual dining restaurants and simply mimic them in polished casual dining, like “plate at a price.”  The problem with succumbing to the temptation is that it slides the brand towards casual, losing traction on the more upscale, polished positioning. 

We think there is more potential for brands in this in-between segment to look to fine dining for ways to add value to their guests and make their experience feel even more “polished.”   Here are just a few examples across food, service and atmosphere.  

FOOD:  A la carte.  Many fine dining restaurants offer their entrees and sides as individual items for guest to chose from.  Unlike most casual or polished casual where the entrees come with specific sides.  For example, Season’s 52’s WOOD-GRILLED HANDLINE TUNA comes with mint tabouli, tomato salad, preserved lemon hummus.  Whereas, fine dining, typically offers the entree proteins alone, then guests choose individual sides that they would like to accompany their meal and/or share with the table.

    • Marketing implication.  Any food offering that offers a point of distinction and is compelling to guests, in the above instance the guest ability to create their own perfect meal by choosing their main entree and sides, can be leveraged in both owned (e.g. website, organic social) and paid media (e.g. pre-roll video, social advertising) to drive traffic. 

brussel sprouts

SERVICE: Sommelier/alcohol specialist. Having a team member that has a high degree of knowledge about the primary alcohol(s) in the restaurant who can help guests with offerings and selections makes the experience all the more special and memorable. 

    • Marketing implication.  This is a guest service that is best communicated in the restaurant.  The wait staff should view the specialist as part of the service team and integrate them in the table side experience by offering up extra, highly knowledgeable, help in drink selection to their guests. 

Wine specialist with guest

ATMOSPHERE: Restrooms. It seems that many restaurants overlook restaurants as part of their brand experience.  Yet, we know from our own research, that bathrooms are like a window into the heart of a restaurant, and very important to guests

    • Marketing implication.  Beautiful or unique restrooms should be discovered by guests.  Delighted guests will undoubtedly do at least one of these two things: 1. Encourage all of those dining with them to check it out, and 2. Post about it to social.  

upscale restaurant bathroom

Part of our role, as partners to our clients, is to bring our perspective to their business.  This notion of polished brands looking up to fine versus down to casual, has been shaped by our views on branding, some incredibly engaging keynotes at this year’s National Restaurant Association show, and our own experience with restaurant marketing.  

Learn more about our passion for food and beverage marketing.