ACCOLADES get a restaurant only so far—especially right now. Back in February, Texas Monthly named Comedor(501 Colorado St., Austin, Tex., comedortx.com) the best new restaurant in the state. Then the sky fell: Austin restaurants were told to cease dine-in service on March 17.
City officials were calling it a six-week closure, but William Ball, Comedor’s co-owner, had a hunch the industry was in for disruption on a much larger scale. “Everyone was rushing to do hot food delivered and we said, ‘Hey, let’s pause for a minute and think about how you can really bring a restaurant experience to the home,’ ” Mr. Ball said.
The draw of a restaurant isn’t just the food, of course, but the sum of a carefully crafted experience: the maître d’s smile, precisely calibrated lighting, the buzz of a full dining room, a cold drink delivered right on cue. Now chefs and restaurant owners are experimenting with how to offer arm’s-length dining experiences that retain some of the magic of the real thing.
Comedor’s owners hit upon ticketed virtual events, or “guided dining experiences,” marketed under the name Assembly. The restaurant worked out how to ship ingredients for a four-course menu—one featured seafood tostadas, bone-marrow tacos and masa lava cake—to participants around the country, who met up on Zoom for a cooking tutorial and dinner guided by the restaurant’s chefs.
The events proved so popular that Mr. Ball and his business partner, chef Philip Speer, have expanded the operation and now offer team-building events for companies. An offshoot, Assembly Bake, sells bread-making kits that feature a hunk of the restaurant’s sourdough starter, nicknamed “Marlon Bran-dough.” Mr. Ball sees these initiatives not merely as a Covid-era Band-Aid but, rather, as a new business model. “We want to be part of building the future of hospitality, and I believe a big part of that is in the home,” he said.
Most restaurants around the country still aren’t back to business as usual. Across the U.S., over 20,000 restaurants have closed permanently, according to the National Restaurant Association; those that have kept the lights on have done so largely by retooling operations to be takeout-friendly. Some of them are doing it with a bit of flourish.
Michael Tusk, chef/owner of Cotogna(490 Pacific Ave., San Francisco; cotognasf.com), a wood-fired Italian restaurant, recognized that many diners came to celebrate a special occasion. For those guests, simply bagging up starters and entrees wouldn’t cut it. So the restaurant offers a Celebration Box ($425 for 2): caviar with crème fraîche panna cotta, steak and sides, caviar tortelli and cake, packaged with custom placemats, a candle and a mood-setting playlist, all tucked inside a gift box tied with a grosgrain bow.
At the Polo Bar(1 E. 55th St., New York; ralphlauren.com/global-polo-bar), Ralph Lauren’s five-year-old restaurant in Midtown Manhattan, to-go meals are now tucked neatly inside hunter green insulated tote bags emblazoned with the restaurant’s name in gold lettering. Assembly and plating instructions come on notecards featuring watercolor illustrations of each dish and cocktail.
The Polo Bar is eschewing third-party food-delivery services and instead dispatching uniformed waitstaff to deliver orders. Seven Reasons(2208 14th St. NW, Washington, D.C.; sevenreasonsdc.com), a pan-Latin restaurant, has gone a step further with Ceviche on Wheels: For $120 per person, the restaurant sends a cook to your home to prepare dishes like swordfish carpaccio and tuna poke.
The human touch can also come via the telephone. Intelligentsia Coffee(intelligentsia.com), the coffee roaster that runs 15 cafes around the country in addition to a wholesale, grocery and direct-to-consumer coffee business, has launched Intelli Celly. The telephone hotline offers access to trained baristas to walk customers through their most pressing coffee questions: How do I make a cortado? What’s the right grind for a drip machine?
Anna Polonsky, founder of the restaurant design and strategy firm Polonsky & Friends, has been encouraging clients to simply include handwritten thank-you notes in their takeout bags, rather than invest in elaborate new branded materials. And at James(605 Carlton Ave., Brooklyn; jamesrestaurantny.com), founder Deborah Williamson has set up a community herb garden in planters outside the restaurant, where neighbors know they can pick a sprig of lemon verbena or Genovese basil to liven up their home cooking.
Music can serve as a link between restaurant staff and diners at home. At Salare(2404 NE 65th St., Seattle; salarerestaurant.com), where the tunes were once a memorable part of each meal, chef Edouardo Jordan has incorporated playlists—the same ones the cooks listen to as they prepare meals—into “monthly journeys” the restaurant offers for takeout. The current menu focuses on the foods of Haiti, with music to match.
In some cases, as with Comedor’s Zoom-based dinner parties, technology has played a role in helping restaurants maintain a connection with diners. Reverence(2592 Frederick Douglass Blvd., New York; reverence.nyc), a 21-seat dining counter in Harlem, is still shuttered for in-person service but recently launched a program called Reverence to Go, a weekly delivery of ready-to-prepare tasting menus, meal kits and ingredients that brings some of the restaurant’s most-loved dishes home. A QR code links to videos of chef/owner Russell Jackson giving warm, sometimes goofy cooking and plating instructions above a loud rock soundtrack. Though Reverence is making a fraction of its pre-pandemic revenue, Mr. Jackson is intent on offering customers something special. “I hate the word pivot,” he said. “But living up to the mandate of who we are as people meant thinking ‘How can we be of service to the community?’ not ‘What can we do to save the business?’ ”
Perhaps no figure in the restaurant world is more closely associated with above-and-beyond service than Will Guidara. The former co-owner of Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan co-founded the Welcome Conference, an annual industry gathering focused on hospitality. Mr. Guidara stepped away from his restaurant company in the summer of 2019 but said he’s been amazed to observe the creativity of his colleagues in recent months. “It’s not like most of the people still doing exciting and compelling things are making a ton of money at it,” he said. “But I think the ones who are doing it are doing it to keep staff employed, maintain their momentum and give moments of joy to people who may have no other moments of joy right now.”
He pointed to Canlis(2576 Aurora Ave. N, Seattle; canlis.com), a model of continuous reinvention during the pandemic. The 69-year-old restaurant’s latest experiment was a citywide treasure hunt anyone could join by calling a number and listening for a clue left on the voice mail. Mr. Guidara said an initiative like this brings to mind something his father, who spent four decades working in hospitality, often says: “Adversity is a terrible thing to waste.”
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