The restaurant industry is dealing with a real reckoning. The pandemic is shaking up the entirety of the food and drink space as we know it, on a scale not seen since Prohibition times. Calling it a pivot would be an understatement. What eateries are doing right now is more of a reinvention, or extreme adaptation to very new and very unusual circumstances.
So far, we’ve seen American cities adopt European-inspired models, closing streets to cars and setting up al fresco dining that adheres to social distancing protocols. We’ve seen restaurants rummage through their wine cellars and sell bottles to-go and dine-in institutions switch entirely to takeout. And we’ve seen chefs breaking down their recipes from home, virtually, so that viewers can replicate and taste at least something resembling the restaurant experience.
At Ava Gene’s in Portland, the move to takeout has been almost seamless, at least from a consumer standpoint. This is especially impressive given that the cuisine is Italian and, hence, built around the slow enjoyment of food. Prior to the pandemic, guests would routinely stay for hours enjoying Roman-centric dishes and selections from a handsome wine list.
Presently, Ava Gene’s is functioning more like a market. In fact, it’s going by the name Division Street Grocers at the moment. The website, fit with a tasty takeout menu, bills it as a spot for “wine and groceries.” An order is placed, an email is sent out with a pickup time, and the handoff is made. All without creating crowds or endangering restaurant staff.
The genius lies in the specialty store approach. Ava Gene’s has essentially morphed into a produce-stand-meets-DIY-Italian-joint. The menu includes everything from pizzas and family meal kits to mixed cases of wine and take-and-bake pasta trays. You can get fresh strawberries from a local farm or get cookie dough to bake sweets at home. Loaves of bread, pesto, granola, coffee, sardines, and so much more are available, too. It basically feels like you have access to chef Joshua McFadden’s entire kitchen, pantry and fridge included.
Another strong example of the high-end bodega approach is & Sons in New York. The relatively new eatery is small and therefore fairly flexible in terms of handling takeout. A self-described American ham bar, the Brooklyn spot specializes in local meats cut in house. Launched by sommelier and vintner Andre Mack, & Sons also has, as you might expect, a tantalizing selection of wines.
Currently, the place is doing pickup orders and takeout via Caviar. The menu includes items like hickory-smoked prosciutto from Virginia, served with warm cornbread madeleines and gerkins. Smartly, and also out of necessity, the restaurant has expedited the opening of its provisions shop, dubbed & Sons Buttery. Here, folks can find specialty cheeses, homemade snacks, sandwiches, free-range eggs, IPA, and other market finds. Again, a sharp pivot to retail, bolstered by a tasteful selection of meals and goods.
Back on the West Coast, at The Tasting Kitchen in L.A., the shift has been to takeout and family-style meals for pickup on Sundays. There’s also been a commitment to keeping a similar standard of service, like what you’d experience if you were dining in and chatting up the waiter. The Venice, CA restaurant is going to the next level, allowing customers to chat with wine director Ivan Zanovello directly via WhatsApp. Imbibers can converse about wine recommendations, the backstories of certain bottles, and more.
In Europe, one restaurant is offering a dining experience that would have seemed completely absurd just a few months ago. Amsterdam’s ETEM has put together greenhouses overlooking the water for couples. Enclosed in glass and spaced appropriately, the structures are like tiny houses with incredible views. Waitstaff deliver orders with lengthy planks to limit contact. It looks a little futuristic but perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise coming from a restaurant known for its forward thinking (it’s also part of a larger arts center called Mediamatic).
Back in Portland, another restaurant is riding the strange new wave. Kachka, a Russian-inspired joint known for its dumplings and horseradish-infused vodka shots, is going full al fresco. Taking advantage of solid summer weather, the owners shifted to the restaurant’s backyard and is set to open Kachka Alfresca at the end of June. There will be 29 individually tented tables (six people max at each) and orders will continue to be done either by phone or online.
In addition to things like caviar, Cobb salad, lamb burgers, and shrimp cocktail, there will be refreshing cocktails. Summery things like guava-tinis and what the restaurant is calling “Miami Vice Slushies” will be available. One drink, “Siberian Maldives,” is informed by the classic Blue Hawaii drink and fetched its name from a toxic lake in Russia. It’s a playful twist on cuisine — and a country — normally associated with hearty fare and snow. The new version of Kachka will offer a poolside atmosphere, like something from the sunniest of Black Sea resorts.
Together, these moves reveal the creativity needed for current survival and the kind of commitment that will bring at least a slice of the old restaurant industry back to life. The food sector is forever altered but that doesn’t mean it can’t have a little fun and experiment with new ideas and health-minded concepts.
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