As the Pandemic Disrupts Restaurants, Upscale Has Become Accessible
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In the mid-1990s, Starbucks opened its first outlet in Denver. Local food media were invited to meet with a coffee roaster who had flown in from Seattle. He showed them arabica beans in various stages of roast, from green to dark and oily. He explained the workings of an espresso machine and frothed a pitcher of milk. The reporters took notes and shook their heads in amazement at the thought of anyone in Denver spending $4 on a cup of coffee. How wrong they were.
Brands may spend years establishing their bona fides as exclusive, rarefied and nearly unattainable objects of desire. But with a sudden pivot at the right time, they can become something else: sensations. This is the way fashion brands like Moschino found a mass-market outlet in Target, or how Shake Shack morphed from a Midtown New York burger stand with a legendarily long line to a global restaurant empire with a billion-dollar valuation.
Some of the restaurant industry’s most successful pivots from sit-down dining to carryout and delivery during the coronavirus crisis have likewise occurred at the very high end, among the nation’s most honored and exclusive tasting-menu rooms. Guests who could only have dreamed of eating at one of these luxury, one-percenter restaurants before can now try them. Sure, they’re not getting anything close to the same experience, but they’re getting a stamp in their dining passports and Instagram bragging rights.
Case in point: Chicago’s Alinea, which responded to the shutdown with a family-style meal of comforting dishes far from its standard repertoire. It sells out, night after night. Staffers in front of the restaurant expedite contactless delivery, checking in customers with iPads, telling cars where to park and delivering bags. It’s white glove—or, rather, latex glove—service. The meals cost $39.95 (surely Alinea’s first non-integer price) and, during the first week of service, focused on a short rib Wellington, wrapped in pastry decorated with its three Michelin stars, lest you forget from whence it came. (Printed instructions call for reheating the beef in the oven and the potato puree in the microwave; amusingly, Grant Achatz and his team think a cup of puree needs to be nuked for five minutes. Guess they don’t use a lot of microwaves.) Achatz’s Instagram feed has been filled with stills and videos of the massive production effort that goes into these meals.
Achetz’s former chef de cuisine Dave Beran also pivoted to short rib Wellington for the takeout menu at Dialogue—his restaurant in Santa Monica that once featured a tasting menu. He’s also has been unable to keep fried chicken and black truffle pot pie in stock, and is impressing diners with the limited menu, including a mornay-glazed grilled cheese sandwich, on offer at his bistro, Pasjoli.
At least Beran can more or less keep up with demand. The $59 family-style meal at Vespertine in Los Angeles is almost as hard a ticket as the $295 tasting menu chef/owner Jordan Kahn was serving before the crisis. The menu, which Kahn bills as a “tribute” to the dishes he prepared at his previous restaurant, Red Medicine, is almost impossible to order. Would-be diners can either join a waitlist or pounce when the monthly batch of meals is released online.
Some tasting-menu chefs who at first chose to close rather than pivot to family-style meals have rethought their decisions. At Lazy Betty in Atlanta, where the chef’s tasting menu costs $165 and features intricately constructed edible tableaux, Chef Ron Hsu just unveiled a menu that strikes a chord of Southern comfort, with options such as pork loin with apple-mushroom dressing, collards and roasted potatoes. It comes with salad and dessert and costs $48 for two, and the buzz has been appreciable. People wanted their Lazy Betty back.
Restaurants like Lazy Betty and Alinea have built their identities by suggesting dining out is a kind of theater, an evening’s entertainment that transports you to a place you had never been before. Now, they are coming to a place you know intimately—your home—and they’re respecting it with dinners that belong on your everyday china. It’s canny marketing: Guests form a personal connection with the brand, and when the world is ready for them to leave the safety of their homes, they will know where to celebrate. And as far as the meals to go are concerned, even the most vicious Yelpers have to realize they’re nothing like the restaurant fare.
While many luxury restaurants have leveraged their brands to interest guests, provide jobs and bring in much-needed revenue during these unprecedented times, a few are holding to their guns. There is no way you can order out a kaiseki meal from Dallas’ Tei-An, but if you’d like to experience a little of the marvel of this Japanese treasure, you can pick up some caviar with soba chips and an order of A5 Kagoshima wagyu beef with instructions for cooking it at home. The cost? $500. Or you can try the $800 make-your-own temaki box from New York City’s Masa, which was already the most expensive sushi restaurant in the country. Suddenly, Alinea looks like a bargain.
John Kessler is a former cook and restaurant critic writing about food in Chicago.