By Kate Brumback
Mom always said no dessert until the dinner plate was clean. But you can forget about lima beans, Mom, or anything else that’s good for you at dessert-only restaurants, where there is no dinner to finish first.
These restaurants are popping up in big cities and in the casino hotels of Atlantic City. They encourage sugar-loving Americans to treat themselves to something rich and chocolaty or light and fruity, without the usual preamble of appetizer and entree.
Some are innovative and trendy, with sleek, modern interiors, while others are traditional and comforting, with upholstered seats and fireplaces. What sets them apart from more casual, walk-in destinations like bakeries or ice cream shops is that all of these restaurants encourage customers to sit, linger, perhaps order wine or cocktails and really enjoy their desserts. They are “after-anything places,” said one Boston dessert-only proprietor, where people come after shopping, seeing a show or having a meal in another restaurant.
“I would eat dessert all the time if I could,” said Steven Brinberg of Manhattan. “It’s the first thing I look at on the menu.”
Brinberg is not alone. Americans love dessert, according to a survey commissioned by C&H Sugar Co. last year. The company found that 97 percent of Americans eat dessert more than three times a week. People who eat dessert, according to the survey, say they “generally enjoy life,” and they enjoy making dessert a social thing. Some 83 percent like to eat sweets with others.
On a recent evening, Brinberg and a friend, Frank Darmstadt, settled at the long narrow bar in the dimly lit Room 4 Dessert restaurant in Manhattan’s trendy Nolita neighborhood. They started by ordering white chocolate margaritas--smooth concoctions of layered Meyer lemon gelee, white chocolate mousse, apricot river salt and yogurt-tarragon sorbet served in martini glasses and topped with threads of cocoa butter nougatine. Then they moved on to a playful plate full of all-white desserts, called “infance,” featuring a crispy meringue, a dollop of milk ice cream, angel food cake, a miniature stick of cotton candy and small marshmallow letters that spelled out “lucky.”
Brinberg and Darmstadt savored the delicate constructions, happily noting that nothing was overly sweet.
Over the last decade, Americans have grown accustomed to paying upward of $7, $8, even $10 for dessert in nice restaurants. Restaurant gimmicks, like the chocolate buffets featured at the Peninsula Chicago hotel and the Four Seasons in Atlanta, attract people who skip dinner but pay to fill up on treats. The success of dessert buffets helped convince pastry chefs there might be a market for nicely decorated sit-down restaurants that serve only desserts.
Customers at Room 4 Dessert get a lot of swank atmosphere and a bit of a show with their plates. Members of the staff, who speak French and English, slide back and forth behind the bar, assembling the desserts right in front of the customers. Diners can order themed tasting plates or less copious desserts in glasses, as well as a cheese plate or “sushi” made from sweet ingredients. All desserts have suggested wine and tea pairings.
Customers can even choose one item from each of three sections of the menu to have a three-course dessert meal. One diner came in several weeks after the restaurant's opening and ate every item on the menu in one sitting, said Will Goldfarb, Room 4 Dessert’s pastry chef.
Greg Pastore and JoAnn Greco opened Dessert in Philadelphia because there were few places where people could sit down and enjoy a cup of coffee and a slice of cake in an atmosphere that wasn’t loud and smoky. The restaurant, which is modeled on European cafes, draws a post-dinner, post-movie and afternoon tea crowd.
The menu features about a dozen desserts, a few of which change every week. Most popular are traditional sweets, like apple pie, cakes, chocolate fondue and souffles. Pastore said that while some menu items may have an avant-garde twist, his aim is to be cozy, not trendy. “We want people to be able to come back often and have different choices,” he said, “but we’re not always trying to be fancy and innovative.”
Countless engagements, birthdays, anniversaries and bridal and baby showers have been celebrated at the two locations of the dessert restaurant Finale in Boston and Cambridge, Mass. Co-owner Paul Conforti believes one reason people like desserts is that they spark pleasant emotions associated with diners' earliest birthday parties or other celebrations where big, fancy cakes were often highlights.
Conforti and his business partner, Kim Moore, were trailblazers in the dessert-only restaurant field. The two came up with the idea when, as students at Harvard Business School, they realized the potential for big profits in foods made from low-cost ingredients like sugar and flour. They opened Finale’s Boston location in 1998.
Instead of making reservations months in advance and spending half a month’s rent on dinner, people typically spend between $15 and $20 each at Finale, Conforti said. The restaurant serves American desserts with European flourishes. The most popular choice is the molten chocolate cake, which has a soft, warm center and is served with coffee gelato.
A diner who recently ate at Sin Dessert Lounge in Chicago said the mood was decidedly romantic. Lit by candles and featuring curtain-enclosed booths, it felt more suited to a late-evening date than a fun night out with friends. A signature dish is the “7 Deadly Sins,” a tray of seven shot glasses filled with seven desserts.
But indulging in sinful treats is not without its drawbacks. An evening at a dessert restaurant could require a few more miles on the treadmill the next morning.