"I'm going for dinner," my friend said when I asked about her trip to Montreal. She's the owner of one of Calgary's finest restaurants and it seemed like a long way to go for something to eat. "There's a restaurant there that I love and I've got to go back," she explained. She also had a good friend to visit and spent a few days there, but the trip was really motivated by that one particular restaurant.
Fine dining isn't a new concept, of course; the Michelin Guide started awarding stars to restaurants back in 1926. And the wealthy have always prized a delicious meal in what used to be called "fancy" restaurants. Thirty years ago, many Canadians would dine out only when they travelled or for a special event such as a birthday or anniversary. By the 1990s, dining out had become a common way to socialize. It was recreational.
Recently, there has been another key change in the tourism industry: Some restaurants have become the reason for travel, rather than simply an amenity for the traveller.
Canadians used to go on vacation in a city for its museums, entertainment, shopping and culture, and they would find some nice places to eat as a bonus. Today, more and more travellers are choosing their destination because of a specific restaurant – the shopping and culture are now the added bonus.
There's a significant economic element to this trend. Tourism is big business for most cities and provinces. When I spoke at the Ontario Tourism Summit last week, I realized how aggressively and passionately Canada's largest province is turning to tourism to fill the economic void left by other industries.
Plenty of research shows that food as an experience is rising in popularity.
A 2010 report from the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association noted that "Well over a third of Canadians could be described as 'foodies': 39 per cent say they love to try new foods and flavours and 37 per cent say they love to try new restaurants." The same report noted that 28 per cent of Canadians listed "Go out to a restaurant" as their first choice for preferred activities with family and friends.
It's big business, too: Full-service restaurants in Canada earned more than $23.5-billion in receipts over the past 12 months.
What has changed over the past decade is the rise of the celebrity chef, and by extension, the status of his or her restaurant. When television food pioneers Julia Child and The Galloping Gourmet (Graham Kerr) took to the airwaves, they likely never imagined the huge popularity of shows featuring superstar chefs and cooking competitions.
Most travel and lifestyle magazines feature an annual "top new restaurants" issue – and it's often the most popular issue of the year. And in cities such as New York or London, where there are plenty of entertainment options, dinner is no longer something to eat quickly before the show on Broadway or the West End. Increasingly, dinner is the show.
Trends in food are always changing and chefs are constantly experimenting with new concepts. Unlike most museums, whose contents are largely static (except for occasional special exhibits), destination restaurants are nimble, offering new choices and experiences that give people a reason to return.
For economists, the concept of eating as experience, rather than a necessity, is of some interest. Destination dining represents a whole new economic category distinct from "fine dining." It should be attracting the energy of economic development folks, especially in smaller centres that will never be able to establish a museum such as the Guggenheim or the Louvre.
It's much easier, and less costly, for a city to attract a top chef – or even better, to invest in fostering its own crop of top chefs – than it is to build a major concert hall. And although one or two destination restaurants won't generate a huge number of jobs, they will help diversify an economy. They also spur other industries such as local agriculture, interior design and architecture.
Food as art. Dining as entertainment. These trends are more than just interesting ways for Canadians to spend money. They also represent the changing tastes and attitudes in a society, and offer fascinating new economic development possibilities.