Fine dining faces strong headwinds. But Kevin Binkley's restaurant is an uncompromising blend of comfort and refinement that offers an alternative vision of what fine dining can be in the modern era.
Kevin Binkley made a mistake.
“I’m proud of everything that we’ve done, but I was losing part of my soul,” he says.
The four-time James Beard Award finalist had fallen into the trap of accepting the conventional wisdom that more is better. By the time he realized the extent to which having four Valley restaurants would pull him out of the kitchen, he was too deeply entrenched in the operational side of the industry to be the chef he needed to be.
“I don’t like this business. Actually, I hate this business,” Binkley says, lamenting the state of what he considers a broken industry. “But I love food. It’s part of me, and that’s all I ever think about, all I ever do.”
Now, he’s reclaiming the joy that first brought him to the stove.
The new Binkley’s, a retooled and supercharged version of his eponymous restaurant, opens to the public this weekend. In preparation, Binkley has sold two restaurants, relinquished control of a third, and is standing on the cusp of once again being the chef he feels he’s meant to be.
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Binkley’s latest creation promises an uncompromising blend of comfort and refinement he hopes can offer an alternative vision of what fine dining can be in the modern era. But while it’s housed in a charming Phoenix bungalow, it’s hard not to see the new Binkley’s as the fortified keep where one of Arizona’s most revered chefs — and perhaps the viability of fine dining in the Valley itself — will make a brave stand.
A restaurant and a home
Binkley stands in the bar of the newly renovated cottage that was once the home of the more casual Bink’s Midtown off 24th Street and Osborn Road.
“I want this to be my last stop. I don’t want to ever open another restaurant,” he says.
Binkley and his wife and business partner, Amy, recently sold their home and moved into a house barely half the size. The main selling point? It’s five doors down from the restaurant.
“I want to live close enough to this where I can live and breathe it,” he says.
It could be said that the couple are building both a restaurant and a home, given that the former is being modeled after the latter.
“What we’re trying to create is if you were to come to our house,” Binkley explains. “I mean, I don’t make blini ice cream or avocado snow at my house, but nonetheless, we wanted to make it that kind of feel.”
Binkley’s will open just four nights per week, Thursdays through Sundays. Over those four nights, the restaurant will host fewer than 150 guests across six seatings — no more than 24 at a time. And in the same way an intimate dinner party might move from one room of the house to another, so will a dinner at Binkley’s.
An unconventional experience
Guests will be greeted on the front patio, where they’ll spend 45 minutes relaxing with a cocktail and bites that Binkley brings out from the kitchen. But while the vibe is comfortable, the food is the kind of French-rooted avant garde fare that Binkley’s fans came to expect at his previous flagship in Cave Creek.
A green apple and aloe cocktail might be paired with smoked foie gras and apple fritters. Classic French radishes appear, reimagined, coated in brown butter and served with an aerated green goddess dressing, passed alongside pear butter and chorizo vol-au-vent.
After relaxing on the patio, walking the garden and perhaps picking some fresh produce for dinner, the festivities move inside to the bar, where guests will linger for another 45 minutes over drinks, a selection of premium cured hams served with focaccia baked to order, or Pok Pok-style Jidori chicken skins with carbonated blue cheese. In addition to putting diners at ease, it’s a format that Binkley conceived to avoid the kind of fatigue that can set in during lengthy meals.
It’s been an hour and a half and a dozen small courses by the time guests enter the dining room, which has been fully renovated since Bink’s Midtown closed. Previously, the bungalow could seat 130 diners. Now, a scant handful of round, wooden tables fill the room, with seats positioned to provide a direct view into the kitchen, just a few steps away, completely open to the dining room.
It’s a combination of dinner and culinary theater where Binkley hopes to cultivate an engaging, educational experience as guests wander in to watch the staff at work or even lend a hand themselves. A meal at Binkley’s is meant to be as comfortable and participatory as it is refined.
“Good food, good service isn’t enough. People want to be wowed,” Binkley says. “And I’m definitely of that mentality. I want to see more than just great food, great service. I want an experience.”
But is it an experience the Valley can embrace?
Fine dining's challenges
Binkley isn’t ignorant of the challenge he has undertaken. In chef circles, the debate in Phoenix isn’t whether fine dining is healthy or sick, but whether it’s mostly dead or all dead.
Providing truly excellent food and service can be addressed head on. Binkley has condensed talent by collecting his best employees at one restaurant. To ensure the front of house is operating at a world-class level, he has brought in Christian Giles, who spent 16 years at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, seven as general manager. Binkley says it’s a matter of gathering the right people and giving them the opportunity to do what they do best.
“They just want to do it right,” he says. “Christian wants to do what he feels like he’s meant to do. I’m not meant to run organizations. I’m meant to cook. He’s meant to serve.”
Some challenges won’t be under Binkley's direct control. Fine dining means fine ingredients and a 2-to-1 ratio of guest to staff, translating to a price of $160 for the evening, before wine pairings. For the experience and food offered, that might be considered a bargain in New York or Chicago, and it’s barely enough for Binkley to eke out a workable margin. But it’s a rare price point in the Valley, and one that Binkley hopes customers can accept.
What’s more, Binkley’s will embrace the increasingly common practice of selling reservations in advance online. It’s a choice borne of necessity — even a small number of cancellations could flip the restaurant’s balance sheet from black to red — but there are esoteric considerations as well.
“I feel like when you go to a high-end restaurant, at the end of your meal when you get a bill, it takes a little of the wind out of the sails,” Binkley says. “If you were at my house, I’d never present you with a bill. So the best-case scenario to me is that everything is taken care of before you get here.”
Some diners might be intimidated by the scale and scope of a menu that will offer 22 courses to start, with plans to increase to 30 or more. But the flow of the meal through the house and the attention to even the smallest detail — like ensuring the chair heights change from room to room so guests aren’t sitting in the same position the whole time — are designed to keep diners feeling fresh and lively.
Binkley is quick to point out that the size of the menu is less of a jump than people might think.
“At (the old) Binkley’s, when you were doing the six-course meal, people didn’t realize it, but they were getting 22 courses. To me, there’s nothing more exciting than to have two bites of 30 things, all different, all unique and fun. We want to keep the experience entertaining.”
He even cringes a bit at the very term: “fine dining.”
“I think people get turned off by that terminology. It’s more like we need to start saying ‘refined dining,’ or something. Because nobody’s wearing a tuxedo. But it’s fine dining, it’s high-end ingredients.”
At the new Binkley’s, he’s choosing to do what he wants to do, not what he should. “Hopefully, people will enjoy it and we’ll sustain and grow and get better and bring something to the Valley, to the Southwest, that’s never been done before.”
Reach Armato at email@example.com or 602-444-8533. Interact with him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Where: 2320 E. Osborn Road, Phoenix.
Hours: Thursdays through Sundays. Seating times are 6:30-6:45 p.m. Thursdays; 5-5:15 p.m. or 8:15-8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 5-5:15 p.m. Sundays. Allow three hours for the full dining experience.
Prices: Menu, $160 per person. Beverage pairings, $85-$190 per person. Service charge, 22 percent.
Details: 602-388-4874, binkleysrestaurant.com. Online reservations only, starting at 11 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 6.