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Polished-casual dining concepts embrace quality without pretense

A step up from traditional casual dining, this growing category provides an approachable escape for guests who are eager to get out of the house — but who aren’t ready to give up the flip-flops and yoga pants just yet

The best polished-casual concepts are a marriage of opposites that hits just the right balance: Fine food in a fun setting for guests who want quality without pretension or fuss. See also: Caviar and tater tots. High tops with a tuxedo. Southern rock music and a dry-aged steak. Chandeliers and graffiti. Sloppy hot chicken sandos on a velvet sofa. Taquitos with tail-on shrimp. Carrot-fed Angus beef burgers with mac ‘n cheese balls.

Why would these contrasting elements of style and flavor appeal so much to a restaurateur or chef? Because their guests are not ready to give up the comfy pants and put on their Big Boy/Girl clothes.

Leigh Lupinacci conjures up a few of these hypothetical guests to create the experience at Esperanza, the polished-casual restaurant in Manhattan Beach, Calif., that opened in July, where Lupinacci is partner and director of food and beverage.

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“A guest may stop by after the beach for a light seafood crudo-driven meal of fresh-cut seabass ceviche blanco and Sonoran scallop aquachile, then return a few nights later for a beautiful cut of New York steak, Oaxacan carnitas or pollo mole blanco,” she said. “Guests can stroll in after a beach day in flip flops and shorts or come in at night for a special celebration they’ve been planning for months.”

Like the Southern California vibe itself, this concept can oscillate between flip-flops to haute couture high heels; from beach volleyball to glamorous gala.

The key constant for a polished-casual concept? “The attention to every detail of your visit will be the same every time,” Lupinacci said.

What’s on the menu?

Esperanza’s Lupinacci illustrates the difference between “casual” and “polished casual” with menu items: “Chile rellenos are delicious, but not every Mexican restaurant features one with fresh lobster tail, Mexican white shrimp and grilled corn,” she said. “Everyone loves a traditional crispy taco and enchilada, so we take it up a notch by using shredded short rib and natural chicken, blends of artisanal Mexican cheese and hand-mashed Peruvian white beans.”

She adds that polished casual is also a perfect description for Manhattan Beach. “We mirror that vibe back to our guests by serving modern, elevated food and drinks in a beautiful, inviting, one-of-a-kind atmosphere while providing welcoming and friendly service and hospitality,” she said.

Polished casual’s endgame should be an experience that guests will seek out and even crave.

“Everything has been created with the goal of the guest saying, ‘I’m craving something that I can only get at Esperanza … let’s go!’” Lupinacci said.

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Chandeliers and spray paint, super empanadas and Super Mario

The high-low aesthetic is also clear at Agave & Rye’s 10 locations, located in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky.

“We know our guests are looking for something that’s approachable,” said Yavonne Sarber, founder and CEO of the boozy taco concept. “Guests are looking for an experience and a unique ambiance.”

That one-of-a-kind aspect is more important now than ever, Sarber has concluded.

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“Over the past year or more, people have also learned that they can cook at home,” she said. “Many have gotten set in their ways, with cooking at home becoming a comfortable habit. Now they’re looking for an escape that makes it worthwhile to venture out.”

Agave & Rye’s experience includes full-scale, old-school arcade rooms with games that tug at just the right nostalgia strings for adult “kids at heart” who grew up playing Mario Bros. The murals on the wall drive home the sensory-memory experience.

Growing into polished casual

Sarber revealed that plans are in development for Papi Jocho’s, a Mexican street-food concept with franchising and licensing opportunities for employees, and a third, unnamed concept that “caters to a specific niche of guests who may not want to be ‘wined and dined’ in a stuffy environment but still want the luxury of the food often served in that type of environment,” she said. “We want to bring a little Southern rock and tattoos to steak."

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