As recently as one week ago, not much aside from luck could help you snag a reservation at some of the world’s most coveted tables.
Today, neither luck nor prestige will get eager diners a spot.
Coronavirus has upended the world of eating out as we once knew it, and upscale restaurants from London and Paris to New York, Los Angeles and Miami have have shut their doors. Some of the closures are temporary, and some are permanent (New York City’s Gotham Bar & Grill closed on March 14 for good).
Others are technically closed to diners but still open for business.
A mere handful are operating with a business as usual mentality.
As of March 19, Daniel Humm’s new Davies and Brook at the Claridge’s in London, CUT by Wolfgang Puck in Singapore and The French Laundry in the Napa Valley were among the rare exceptions of restaurants that have stayed open.
Closures, with TBD dates of reopening along with massive staff layoffs in some cases, have made bigger headlines.
The lengthy list includes Humm’s three Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park; Alain Ducasse’s three Michelin-starred namesake fine-dining temple at the Plaza Athenee in Paris; and Gucci Osteria da Massimo Bottura Beverly Hills, by the eponymous three Michelin-starred Italian chef, in Los Angeles.
To-go or not to-go
Daniel Boulud, with 16 dining outlets globally including in New York, London, Toronto, Montreal and Boston, is among the notable chefs who’ve brought their businesses nearly to a halt (at publishing time, just two of the restauranteur’s spots were open: Café Boulud in Palm Beach and DB Bistro & Oyster Bar in Singapore were open).
“I closed even before any regulations came out that required restaurants to close,” he says. “The only way to overcome the virus is to reduce the spread by staying isolated, and you can’t do that when you’re operating a restaurant.”
While some of his industry colleagues have ventured into takeout and delivery since their mandated shutdowns, Boulud has opted not to go that route.
“I would consider to-go food if I felt that I could keep customers and my employees safe, but I don’t think I can do that right now,” he says.
Boulud’s empire going dark leaves more than 800 people jobless, at least for the time being, a predicament that thousands of restaurant owners around the world must contend with. Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, for example, laid off 2,000 workers this week because the company is no longer generating revenue.
The economic consequences that posh restaurants have to contend with because of their standstill status are dire, says Hillary Dixler Canavan, the restaurant editor for the global food site Eater.com.
“The high-end restaurants that are closed are bleeding cash right now,” she says. “In the US, they haven’t gotten economic relief from the government yet, and while some may get cash reprieve by pivoting to a takeout model, broadly speaking, to-go food at upscale restaurants isn’t profitable unless you do high volumes. These places weren’t designed for pick-up and delivery.”
Pivot to takeout
But some restaurant owners and chefs, mainly in the United States, are at least willing to try their hand in this new territory. Instead of pricey menu items diners are accustomed to as part of the whole dining out experience, the dining in menu options are decidedly more affordable.
Casa Tua Cucina in Miami is among this group. The restaurant’s to-go menu includes comfort food dishes such a variety of pizzas, paninis and pastas, along with salads, for less than $20.
The trendy Greek restaurant Avra, with three locations, is closed in Beverly Hills and Manhattan’s Midtown East but started pickup and delivery from Avra Madison, on Manhattan’s East 60th Street, this week.
Greek staples such as lamb chops and grilled octopus are part of the menu, but the highlight is Avra’s popular three-course course lunch special that’s available all day and costs just $29.95 – a relative bargain considering that starters alone on the a la carte menu can run close to that amount.
Diners can pick from appetizers such as a baked spinach pie with feta cheese and leeks and a tomato-laden Greek salad. Entrees include a whole branzino with sautéed wild greens and skewered swordfish, and for dessert, there’s baklava and a chocolate yogurt cheesecake.
“This is a time of crisis, and we want eating out to be a pleasure that can be enjoyed at a reasonable price,” says co-owner Nick Tsoulos. “We have loyal employees and a repeat clientele, and our approach allows some people to keep working and our diners to keep enjoying our food,”
Milos, another pricey Greek eatery with eight locations globally, has suspended operations at all of them with the exception of the one on Manhattan’s West 55 Street where a to-go menu debuted this week.
It includes Greek staples such as grilled fish and a list of 35 wines that owner Costas Spiliadis is selling at retail, not at your typical 60% restaurant markup.
Customers can imbibe on a refreshing assyrtiko white wine from Santorini or choose from Greek sparkling, reds and roses. All the bottles are $50 or less, and several are under $20.
The upscale New York City Korean steakhouse Cote is also selling wine bottles at retail prices as part of its new to-go business, but owner Simon Kim says that he’s offering only magnums.
“We plan to change up what we have each week depending on the best prices we get on wine,” he says. “We plan on passing these values along to our customers.”
In Beverly Hills, Wolfgang Puck launched a curbside family menu this week at his famous California cuisine spot Spago.
The $49 per person price includes five appetizers such as asparagus soup with lobster, Caesar salad and wild mushroom pizza; a pasta dish of agnolotti with peas; one entrée such as a filet mignon or vegan spaghetti squash; three sides and three desserts including a warm triple berry crisp.
“We’ve always done takeout for our customers who’ve requested it, but now, we’ve really ramped it up,” says Puck. “We’re trying to keep it wallet-friendly and make it delicious, but we’ll know we’ve succeeded only if diners ask for the menu when we’re back up and running again.”
A to-go meal from a restaurant such as Spago may be the best option for people who enjoy eating out at high-end places and want to try to replicate the experience at home.
Food equals comfort
Regardless of who’s doing the ordering, offering to-go food at somewhat reduced prices — at least in comparison to on-site pricing — allows upscale eateries to stay in touch with their customers, win some new ones and engage with the local community all the same time, says food Instagrammer Kimia Kalbasi, whose handle is @kimiakravings.
“Food gives people a sense of comfort, and it’s very endearing when the fancy place in town is offering comfort when so many of us are feeling distressed,” she says. “In situations like these when there is so much economic loss, no one wants expensive, precious food. We all want good food that warms our hearts.”
Canavan, of Eater.com, adds that supporting these restaurants by ordering to-go food may be the gesture that keeps them going when they’re allowed to reopen.
“Anyone with disposable income should be helping them by ordering their food or at least buying gift cards for future use,” she says. “it may be hard for them to survive otherwise.”
Indeed, for folks in the fortunate position to spend money on upscale meal delivery as opposed to more typical take-out fare, like pizza or Pad Thai, these restaurant offerings will provide a nice alternative.