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The new dining reality: Shorter menus, quicker meals - and ugly-delicious dishes

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Let's walk down memory lane and inhale the joys of Pasjoli, the Santa Monica restaurant introduced by chef Dave Beran in 2019. The stars of the show included a whole pressed duck, delivered atop a teak trolley, and a chocolate souffle graced with fresh vanilla bean ice cream.

Suffice it to say, the coronavirus pandemic rained on the restaurant's party. Now the only way diners can order the dramatic duck or souffle is as a meal kit -- some assembly required at home. "Tableside anything," even pouring water, is discouraged under the county's pandemic guidelines, says the chef.

Every departure from his original dream was made to keep his staff employed, he says. "No one is going to order a $68 steak to go," he thought when the pandemic emptied his dining room last year. Beran replaced eight ounces of dry-aged rib-eye with the same amount of hanger steak for $30. "Fancy food doesn't travel well," the chef says. So his dishes became more rustic (cassoulet was a recent possibility), and portions grew, giving customers the option of leftovers.

"We've gone from pressed duck served tableside to a glorified cheese sandwich," he says -- and from a menu with 32 dishes to a dozen.

Almost a year into what insiders liken to an extinction event for the industry, with 110,000 restaurants closed during the pandemic, diners are adjusting to the reality of fewer menu choices, briefer dining times, online ordering and dishes whose looks take a back seat to taste. "I want something that gives me a hug, not a challenge," says Beran.

Some changes are apt to become permanent. "Gone are the days when I baked hundreds of pastries and hope people arrive," says Kristen Hall, the pastry chef and co-owner behind Bandit Patisserie and the Essential, both in Birmingham, Ala. "Now they preorder." That reduces the risk of waste, she says, and "creates something [for patrons] to look forward to."

At NiHao, an exciting Chinese addition to Baltimore, pastry chef Pichet Ong agrees about advance ordering, which helps with budget control and also promotes speedy pickup. "People don't want to wait," says Ong, known for his many-layered matcha cake. To avoid lingering, "we assign pickup times."

Diners are getting dishes that chefs never thought they'd serve. "We blew up the menu during the great pause," says chef Victor King, Hall's business partner at the Essential. While the restaurant has stuck with its theme of comfort food, the selections now include things previously served during staff meal, or dishes that employees were cooking or ordering for themselves at home: "a lot of Chinese and Indian takeout," says King. Enter fried rice with collard stem kimchi or lamb bacon, and heirloom carrot curry, "comforting things that travel well." Dishes that originally helped fill seats don't necessarily pass muster. Beef tartare on a giant tater tot? "You wouldn't want to eat that 45 minutes later" at home, says the chef.

A fixed-price menu has helped save the French-inspired Bell's restaurant in Los Alamos, Calif., owned by chef Daisy Ryan and her husband, Greg. Like Beran, the veterans of the high-end Per Se in New York asked themselves how they could retain staff in the crisis. The answer was a reservation-only menu for $65 a person. "We can't rely on a 2 1/2-hour dinner where a couple has a couple glasses of wine" and maybe splits a course, says Daisy Ryan. "That time is over." Bell's has also eliminated tipping, but added a 20% service fee. "Nothing is the same as before," says Ryan. The pandemic has "forced best business practices," she says. "We are so much more profitable than we've ever been with a la carte," a strategy to which she "can't see ever going back."

About time, says Alex Susskind, professor of food and beverage management at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration. Finally, he says, "restaurants have figured out how to raise prices and pass the cost of doing business on to the consumer," as airlines and hotels have in the past. The pandemic, he says, is "an opportunity for restaurants to improve labor relations -- pay more to staff -- and try to renegotiate the fundamental elements of their business." Landlords and suppliers need restaurants as much as restaurants need them.

While diners have embraced some changes -- who would have thought so many of us would be making reservations to eat outside in winter? -- restaurants aspire to hang on to what made them draws in the first place.

Beran, an alumnus of the experimental Alinea in Chicago and a James Beard Foundation award winner, still keeps tweezers in his kitchen, but he's not chasing Instagram likes. "Beautiful food will never save bad flavor," he says, "but delicious food will always save an ugly dish." Even so, says Beran, he pulled from Pasjoli's takeout menu the tomato stuffed with tuna tartare, a popular appetizer that tends to roll around and break apart in transport. "The trick is to not make things look cheap, but not cost a fortune, either." One of his successes is coq au vin packaged with a light pastry cover and herbs and garlic butter that customers can use to finish the dish at home -- "chicken pot pie, basically," says the chef.

As for a lot of establishments, takeout was a big switch for the 44-year-old Rainbow Lodge in Houston. "We're not the kind of place where you do that: Click, click, click and pick up a bag of food," says owner Donnette Hansen. "People are taking a risk going out, and I appreciate that. I don't want to lose all the hospitality touches." So the dining destination continues to offer a printed menu on "thick card stock that doesn't feel cheap" and salt and pepper in shakers rather than paper packets. No one will tell patrons they can't linger, either. "That's a total turnoff -- not to say we're going to stand around hugging you for two hours."

The big change? "People sitting outside" the restaurant, says Hansen. "They never did that before," not in the Texas heat. The lodge, which sits next to a creek, invested $120,000 on new stone walls and enhanced sound and lighting systems. Looking ahead, the owner expects even "the ladies who lunch and guys in suits" to continue dining in the open air.

Elsewhere, fussy diners, or those with dietary restrictions, are hearing "sorry" more often. "Previously, we just wanted to make you happy," says Jeremiah Langhorne, chef-owner of the Dabney, Washington's ode to the Mid-Atlantic. He also had "a huge palette from which to choose" and plenty of staff to customize dishes. "It's so much more difficult now," says the chef, who kept just half his crew and switched from a la carte to a fixed-price list last fall, when the restaurant reopened for indoor dining. Langhorne advises diners with special requests to email in advance, "but nobody does that," leaving him with "less ability in the middle of service to crank something out."

The days of people camping out at their table are mostly history, done in by requests from restaurateurs to limit the time diners spend eating and drinking, when masks are removed. Ninety minutes for two, basically the industry norm, is common. The difference between now and the past is that often the restaurant makes an explicit printed or verbal appeal to eat and leave.

"Time restrictions will probably stick going forward," says Susskind from Cornell. Guests want to spend less time on average -- a trend he says emerged pre-pandemic and has accelerated, particularly with millennials and Gen Z'ers. The exception: high-end dining. People who have been stuck at home forever, away from cosseting servers and sommeliers, probably don't want to speed-eat a tasting menu. Otherwise, says Susskind, "less is more will kick in."

Nick Bognar, one of nine national chefs to receive Food & Wine's Best New Chef honor last year, was used to playing to a full house at Indo in St. Louis, which riffs on the backgrounds of his Korean and Filipino cooks as well as his Thai heritage and his family's long-running Japanese restaurant, Nippon Tei. The signature dish is Issan hamachi, precise cuts of Japanese fish with Thai accents of fish sauce, coconut, yuzu paste and chile oil. Until the pandemic, his food rarely left the restaurant in a box. Now, there are slow nights, and "to-go is here to stay."

To encourage customers who couldn't enjoy his brand in person, Bognar added lower-priced items, including a tuna poke bowl that "we wouldn't have done before," and suspended the $150 omakase menu at Indo's counter. "You can't do it at tables," he says. "It loses its appeal." The surprise beneficiaries since the pandemic have been diners who don't eat meat. Since "vegetables are cheaper than imported fish," Bognar has added a Japanese pumpkin green curry and charred purple cauliflower coated with spicy naan jim sauce and finished with candied peanuts. And local ingredients (pork jowl) have taken the place of some things from far away (toro). The meat enjoys the fattiness of the tuna, says Bognar, who cures the pork, finishes it with a blow torch, and serves the meat as sashimi.

Labor is getting extra scrutiny, too. Beran raises a question: Does Pasjoli need three people pouring water? "We're discussing the value of each employee and what they can contribute." In the Before Times, shortcuts were frowned on and one cook might spend eight hours chopping onions for French onion soup, a task that Beran says can be done with a Robot Coupe in 20 minutes.

Touch-free QR codes and online menus might seem impersonal compared to a printed list or, rarer now, dishes explained by an actual waiter, but Susskind welcomes the innovation. "I look at technology as a layer of service."

The ever-resilient industry is trying to find silver linings. At the Dabney, "fewer dishes allow us to focus" on the big picture, says Langhorne.

Susskind, pointing to online shops and markets, says, "Restaurants are expanding their businesses in ways they never did before." Want to entertain at home like Washington chef Eric Ziebold and his wife and business partner, Celia Laurent? Last month, the couple started selling scented candles, linens and pantry items through their Kinship Collection.

The idea, Beran says, is to "give customers new reasons to come back." Over the summer Pasjoli began serving lunch for the first time, on a new front patio, and started offering dog treats at the host stand -- relocated outside, of course.

Bognar figures life will feel somewhat normal when he brings back his intimate omakase.

"When I can hand food right across the counter" to expectant diners, he says, "I'll start it up."

 

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