Anyone remember the movie, BACK TO THE FUTURE? This summer, someone created a parody in which Doc Brown says: “Marty, whatever you do, do not go to 2020!”
Well, the year isn’t over yet, and everything seems to have gotten worse. We’re dead on, balls-in-the-center of the worst pandemic in memory.
We all know the dire situation…a quarter-million deaths, depression, suicides, divorce, unemployment, businesses in the tank, nest eggs gone…and the list goes on and on.
The restaurant industry has been dealt a body blow (after body blow) and is one of the poster children of the pandemic disaster.
And yet, here we are: still open for business, still putting out awesome dishes, making life a little better for our guests, so thankful we have jobs. We’re social distancing, filtering the air, insanely sanitizing every surface over and over and over again. We’re faiythfully wearing uncomfortable face masks for hours and hours (please say a prayer for our cooks in our kitchens, some of them standing over a torrid scorching deep fryer for hours, all the while wearing a face mask).
So what have we learned these past several months? And what does the dining future look like?
We know that some pandemic trends are going to remain, even after a vaccine is available. Frequent hand washing and sanitizing are here to stay. So too is less touching in restaurants, with QR codes for menus instead of paper. Touchless payment devices will reign.
I expect that business travel will take a few years to return to some sort of normal. Restaurants will not rely as much on international travelers or domestic business travel and will move to attract more locals. Hotel occupancy will continue to suffer greatly. And urban centers and office buildings will be dramatically less populated as thousands of employees have become comfortable, productive and accustomed to working from home.
With a few clicks, meal delivery and curbside pickup will be a part of most every cosumer’s tool-box. Affordable comforting food will grow in popularity. Meal kits, while popular, will never be as good as a great restaurant.
Outdoor seating will be much more prevalent and more creative than ever.
And I’m wondering if a new hybrid of restaurants will emerge, one based on a fast casual model that’s more interesting and sophisticated where you order up at the counter but with a significant bar and really good food. I’m thinking of CENTRO in the North Loop.
So what steps are the fine dining and rock-star restaurants doing to cope with shutdowns and severe COVID-19 restrictions including 50% less seating capacity and curtailed hours of operation?
Well, just as Louis Vuitton is not morphing into The Gap, and the Four Seasons hotels are not becoming Holiday Inn Expresses, important restaurants are retaining their DNA and special allure while at the same time finding creative solutions that are less expensive and have big-time appetite appeal to a broader audience that they all desperately need right now.
World renowned ALINEA In Chicago, whose theatrical tasting menu was $365 and reservations were next to impossible to snag, has tabled their molecular-gastronomy offerings (the merging of science and ingredients, with a heavy dose of liquid nitrogen) and is now offering a comforting SHORT RIB WELLINGTON with mashed potatoes for $34.95 for curb-side pickup.
NOMA, in Copenhagen, known for its spectacularly imaginative (and stunningly priced) fourteen-course dining experience, and who for four consecutive years was named the “Best Restaurant in the World, has completely flipped the switch and become a burger joint. It must be one hell of a burger.
Michelin starred CANLIS in Seattle, now closed for indoor dining, has created a drive-thru on the premises. The morning queue starts at 7AM with a drive-thru menu of bagels of every stripe. Later in the day the switch to burgers – $14.95 with fries. I’ve read that they serve over a thousand burgers a day. A good reputation sure helps.
MANNY’S STEAKHOUSE, is boxing up combinations of its proprietary dry-aged steaks just in time for Christmas. Purchase Manny’s Steaks Here.
Restaurants need to focus on INNOVATION – because if we lose innovation we’ll no longer have any advantage over at-home eating. Such is the case with Gavin Schmidt at THE MORRIS in San Francisco, also Michelin starred, who was in the habit of serving fried chicken as an employee meal. Now, every Thursday, he’s showcasing “Fried Chicken & Champagne” as a feel-good and comforting solution to these wretched times. They sell out every week.
Even DANIEL BOULUD in New York, whose strict dress code mirrors his elegant menu offerings, has relaxed his exacting male attire requirements. Jackets and ties are no longer required, just “smart casual.”
So now…my opinion:
My view is that fine/fancy dining will diminish – not go away, but most likely recede in the public’s consciousness. Some customers are still going to want that pampered, special experience. But now is not the time to be cooking for egos or the press.
THE MICHELIN GUIDE has made the world insane. Chefs aren’t cooking for customers; they’re cooking for a TIRE COMPANY.
In an era of half-full dining rooms, have three-star restaurants gone the way of two-martini lunches and two-pack-a-day smoking habits?
Does anyone these days want to put up with a French waiter who is not there to please you, but for you not to disappoint him?
And are you going to feel comfortable being scrutinized by a well-intentioned lurking staff in a joyless hushed dining room? And ladies, if you are not decked out in a Hermes scarf or red-soled Christian Louboutin stilettos and spritzed with Jo Malone, just how are you going to feel?
How about wine lists that sport an entry-level price of a hundred bucks and you cannot even pronounce the maker?
I don’t know about you, but I’m a little tired of the awkward ceremony of hovering chefs at my table explaining their culinary philosophy.
It’s my belief that folks don’t dine out at MANNY’S just because they are hungry.
No, they go to MANNY’S because they just want to get out of the house, have an amazing steak, be entertained, be around people they like, feel the buzz of conversation and laughter, without a care in the world and just have a damn good time. At MANNY’S you are not ordering a DRY AGED NEW YORK STRIP to stave off rickets.
I’ll take a table for two there.