A Blog by Jonathan Low


Sep 26, 2021

How Eating Out Has Changed

A lot has changed, from menus, to where people want to sit. And there may be no going back. JL 

The New York Times Food Desk Reports:

The new dinner hour (early). The fried chicken sandwich. Unset tables. Waiting lanes. Pandemic pizza (thicker crust to survive transportation and reheating). Street-legal drinks. The seats customers prefer are the furthest from large groups. Restaurant customers outdoors brought the clatter of dining rooms with them. Wine lists in flux. QR menus are 4ever. Tables for one. Streamlined menus. Subscription plans. Employee cross-training. Outdoors. Covid surcharges.

For a year and a half now, restaurant and bar customers have swerved and stretched to meet the shifting realities of going out in a pandemic. Masks on, masks off. Shutdowns, curfews, social distancing, staff shortages — all may keep coming or going in sync with coronavirus caseloads and the health of the economy. But these strange times have also spawned a number of smaller, less heralded developments — innovations, tweaks and quirks — that have the potential to stick around. Together, they amount to a transformation in American hospitality, whether at fast-food counters, neighborhood bars or formal dining rooms. Here are some of the ways in which eating out has changed.

The New Dinner Hour

I used to sit down to dinner at 9:30 p.m., or even 10, and didn’t think twice about it, but in the past two years I have aged approximately three decades. I now find myself committed to the early-bird dinner. A 6 p.m. reservation has never been so appealing — I’ll even take a 5:30, if my friends are game. And they are! For so many of us, lockdowns and curfews changed internal clocks and day-to-day priorities. Dining early also comes with a bonus: getting home early enough to take a shower, watch an episode of “The Other Two,” and still have enough time to finish the novel I’m reading before a full night of sleep.

Yurts, Repurposed

Restaurants that bought yurts or built single-table cabins last fall when it became too cold to eat in the open air expected that diners would avoid them with the arrival of Covid vaccines and warmer weather. In fact, enclosed shacks stayed popular enough that some have been equipped with air-conditioners. It turns out that year-round cabins like the ones at Don Angie in Manhattan and Peaches in Brooklyn make superb private dining rooms for those with low budgets, a sense of adventure and, perhaps, a Bluetooth speaker.

A Rival for the Burger

The fried-chicken sandwich, which for years has surfed the American appetite like an Olympian, has hit a new high. In 2019, just before the pandemic, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen introduced a take on the sandwich, which its rival Chick-fil-A had been selling since the 1960s. A temporary shortage of the Popeyes sandwiches and a superior social media game juiced that chain’s fan base, giving Popeyes a brief advantage, but in the end, the real winner was the chicken sandwich itself, which is now challenging the burger’s dominance. In the first half of 2020, when food delivery was at a peak, the chicken sandwich was the No. 1 food item ordered on DoorDash. New versions have popped up all over, from chains like Taco Bell, McDonald’s and Shake Shack to urban one-offs like Double Chicken Please in Manhattan, which sells cocktails and $14 chicken sandwiches with salted egg yolk. The sandwich has had star turns before, but this time just feels different.

Unset Tables

What used to be a given of table service — a neat setting of knife, fork, spoon and napkin, each in its proper spot — is now an option. Many restaurants, from mom-and-pop places to the formal 19th-century dining room at Gage & Tollner, in Brooklyn, have switched to the flatware wrap: all of the utensils rolled up in a napkin, sometimes a disposable paper one. Restaurateurs say it requires less handling by employees — a potential boon for the health of patrons and of staffs, who are already stressed as positions go unfilled. And it might be an incentive for parents to teach children how to set a table.

Waiting Lanes

Last year, 35 percent of all restaurant orders were made not to a hovering waiter, but to a two-way speaker in a drive-through lane, according to the market research firm NPD Group. (The figure was just 26 percent in 2019.) And this year, even as restaurants reopen dining rooms, the car traffic has remained constant. Sure, the drive-through has long been a fixture of the chain restaurant. But companies that never offered them before, like Shake Shack and Applebee’s, are testing them. Chipotle has opened 100 drive-through “Chipotlanes” for picking up mobile orders. Even some fine-dining restaurants added drive-throughs — including Canlis, in Seattle, which for a brief period sold burgers to waiting drivers.

Just before the pandemic, several cities banned construction of drive-throughs for environmental, traffic and health reasons. Elsewhere, though, it looks as if these lanes will not only survive, but evolve. Chipotle plans drive-through restaurants with no dining rooms, as Dunkin’ and Starbucks have already done. McDonald’s has tested software that scans your license plate and suggests dishes based on your past orders. The speaker may someday be an antique.

Pandemic Pizza

Pizza delivery crews worked at high speed in the first few months of the pandemic. Millions of Americans wanted meals brought to their doors, and the result was a drastic leap in sales at the major chains in April, May and June of 2020, compared with a year earlier — like the 28 percent spike reported by Papa John’s. The dough at these places was already engineered to survive transportation and reheating. Not so at many of the independent artisanal pizzerias around the country, whose pies were designed to be eaten right away. Some chefs, like David Sheridan at Wheated, in Brooklyn, began tinkering with the dough and the toppings — spooning sauce over cheese, for instance — to keep the pies from going limp. Businesses like Di Fara, also in Brooklyn, rejiggered their formulas as they began shipping frozen pizzas across the country. The effect, in both cases, is a stronger (and sometimes thicker) crust that doesn’t become tooth-wrenchingly tough upon reheating. We may be witnessing the beginning of a new pizza genre: the high-quality portable pie.

Street-Legal Drinks

To-go alcoholic drinks are a source of pleasure and even pride in New Orleans, where I’ve lived for more than 20 years. When Covid arrived, they became something more: a financial lifeline for bars and restaurants around the country where indoor service was prohibited or restricted, and a solace to pandemic-weary locals who longed to get outside and support the businesses they missed. Today, nearly 30 states have legalized the sale of carryout beer, wine and liquor at restaurants and bars, either permanently or for an extended period, with similar measures pending in others. Most places are still not as liberal about drinking as New Orleans, where the sight of people strolling with cocktails in hand is an integral part of the city’s image. Still, the relaxed restrictions on alcohol sales — a vital profit source for still-struggling businesses — appear to be with us for a while.

Musical Chairs

Getting the best seat in the dining room has always been a priority for the sort of people who know just where the choice sections end and Siberia begins. That calculation has been thrown off kilter by the risks of indoor dining and the rising appeal of outdoor tables. Restaurant owners say that, at least in the more temperate months, alfresco dining has become the most popular option, and the seats customers prize are the ones farthest from large groups. “It used to be that they want to sit in the middle of everything,” said Caroline Styne, a co-owner of the Lucques Group restaurants in Los Angeles. “They want to be seen and see what’s happening, and now they want to sit in the outskirts of places.” The lure of the streetside seat could change with the weather, the vagaries of Covid and the adjustments restaurants make to their dining rooms for distancing and air circulation. But for now, said Ivy Mix, the co-owner and head bartender of Leyenda, in Brooklyn, “the safest seat should be the seat you want to sit in.”

Cities on Speaker

City streets quieted when the pandemic and its shutdowns hit. But as restaurant customers moved outdoors in the months that followed, they brought the buzz and clatter of dining rooms along with them. Today, year-round outdoor service appears to be here to stay in many places, and it has transformed the way cities sound — for better or worse, depending on your perspective. Outside, the clamor that normally ricochets around dining rooms disperses naturally, and the low hum can be delightful. But the volume can turn cacophonous as diners raise their voices to speak over sirens, passing trucks and live music. “It’s a snowballing situation that has an impact on all of the residents,” said Robin Glosemeyer Petrone, a partner at Threshold Acoustics, an acoustics and audio-visual design consultancy in Chicago. “But it’s good for the businesses because they want to create an atmosphere of energy.” Those conflicting responses to noise guarantee plenty of clashes between hopping restaurants and their hopping-mad neighbors.

Wine Lists in Flux

How did the pandemic change restaurant wine lists? A dozen restaurants will give you 12 different answers. Popina, a wine-oriented restaurant in Brooklyn, sold off much of its collection early in the crisis. But subsequent business has been far better than expected, said James O’Brien, an owner, so he has rebuilt the wine list. The inventory, he says, is now worth more than ever, roughly $100,000. “I was able to buy a lot more wine,” he said, “and I was also buying stuff when other restaurants were not.”

In Columbia, S.C., Lula Drake Wine Parlour, which opened in 2016, once had 170 bottles on its list. Now it has 15, with another 35 wines by the glass, said Tim Gardner, the proprietor. “The big cellar was a lot of work, and I was always here,” he said. “Now, I can actually leave, and it’s OK.” Rocket Farm Restaurants, based in Atlanta, operates 19 restaurants in the Southeast; at the 11 that focus on wine, the selection looks much as it did prepandemic, said Eduardo Porto Carreiro, Rocket Farm’s beverage director. If anything, he said, consumer behavior seemed to change more than the restaurants did. At first, people spent less on wine at the group’s luxury restaurants than they had previously, though they were spending more at its midrange places. “Now,” he said, “things have evened back a bit.”

QR Menus 4 Ever

I miss menus, the kind printed out on paper or smudged on chalkboards. Scanning a QR code at the table and scrolling through the menu on my phone seemed like a clever, cautious workaround when we knew so little about how the coronavirus was spread, but at so many establishments it doesn’t seem to be going away. On the rare occasions I’m handed a paper menu — textured, creased, stained — I treasure it as a kind of relic.

Tables for One

Nearly everyone dines alone at one time or another. Yet the experience — being steered to a crowded bar or simply shown the door — can be deflating, especially in big-city restaurants where space is scarce and giving a two-top to a single diner strikes some owners as throwing away money. The advent of social distancing has lent new purpose to the solitary meal, and the expansion of outdoor seating onto sidewalks and streets has given many restaurants room to accommodate the lone customer. OpenTable reports that its percentage of solo-dining reservations was 33 percent higher in January than it was just before the start of the pandemic a year earlier. That trajectory has flattened somewhat in recent months, but in my strolls around New York City all summer, I’ve seen sidewalks peppered with diners seated alone and smiling.

Booze Without a Buzz

It was one of the early, unavoidable headlines of the 2020 lockdowns: People Are Drinking More. In time, some began to reconsider their alcohol intake and look for alternatives. What they found was a surge of nonalcoholic cocktails, wines and beers that had already begun to hit the market before Covid-19, but was now turbocharged by a rising concern about health. These days, bars and restaurants routinely offer lists of sophisticated nonalcoholic drinks. The Houston bar Better Luck Tomorrow has a virgin martini called I, Martin. In San Diego, Polite Provisions and Raised by Wolves recently put a nonalcoholic beer on tap. Perhaps inevitably, the drinking and sober crowds have met and mingled. “I see groups of people where part of the party is not drinking for whatever reason,” said Sarah Crowl, the bar manager at Rosie Cannonball, who has led the zero-proof charge in Houston. “It’s an active choice.”

Barriers for Peace

They were everywhere for a while, those movable plexiglass partitions that some governments required when restaurants couldn’t space tables at least six feet apart. Most are gone now, but not all. You can still sit next to one at Shukette and Mark’s Off Madison in Manhattan, among other restaurants. Although scientists have questioned whether the partitions ever did much to stop the spread of Covid, some customers have noticed an unintentional benefit: The barriers provide some extra privacy, making it harder to hear your neighbors’ chatter.

Restaurants as Retailers

The pandemic-driven pivot to provisions — meal kits, branded ball caps and deli containers of pasta sauce that food businesses sold in order to survive — brought restaurants into Americans’ homes. Today it looks as if many of them won’t be leaving. The Atlanta restaurant Staplehouse, whose tasting menu helped make it a national darling, is now a market selling housemade condiments, wine and fresh items like cashew lace cookies filled with hibiscus buttercream. Goldbelly, the online service that makes nationwide deliveries of foods like the seafood gumbo from Commander’s Palace in New Orleans and La Palma burritos from Los Angeles, has added more than 200 new restaurants this year and doubled its customers in the past 12 months. High-profile restaurants like Carbone and Momofuku have leaned in, selling jarred marinara and chili crunch online and at grocery stores. The merch market, in which restaurant T-shirts have replaced concert T-shirts as cultural markers, remains strong. There’s even a Canadian website dedicated solely to branded restaurant food and fashion.

Streamlined Dishes

At first, restaurant dishes across the country became simpler for logistical reasons, like the need to survive bumpy rides in takeout containers. But many shorter menus and pared-back dishes may stay around for some time. That’s because labor shapes a restaurant, right down to the kind of food a kitchen can make — the intricacy of a fine-dining plate is possible only in a kitchen packed with cooks doing meticulous prep work. The restaurant-labor shortage, caused in many cases by a business’s inability or unwillingness to fairly pay and properly support its workers, means that countless kitchens across the country are now short staffed. But many cooks still in the business are working independently, rolling out small projects built for the moment, like Bread Head in Los Angeles, run by Alex Williams and Jordan Snyder. The two chefs used to cook elaborate French fare at the now-closed Trois Mec in Hollywood, Calif., but now they make a handful of excellent sandwiches each day with their own airy focaccia. No, it’s not fine dining — and it doesn’t require fine-dining labor — but even a sandwich, made with thought and care, can be an utter delight.

Early Adopters

Breakfast and lunch service were often the first things to go when pandemic restrictions forced restaurant owners to scale back. But some fine-dining chefs tacked in the other direction: They leaned into daytime offerings, and found a new creative outlet and audience. The restaurant Wildair, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, opened a walk-up window selling housemade doughnuts. Frenchette, in TriBeCa, took over an office lobby in the financial district to open Frenchette Bakery. The chef Renee Erickson, who turned her Seattle restaurant, the Whale Wins, into a cafe and larder in July 2020, said the hordes of neighbors working from home presented an opportunity to provide a daytime menu that was casual and unpretentious, with sardine toasts, frittatas and egg sandwiches. The chef Michael Fojtasek felt the same when he opened Little Ola’s Biscuits as a pop-up in Austin, Texas, while his high-end Southern restaurant, Olamaie, has been temporarily shut down. “I know more people are going to find this delicious than some popcorn purée,” he said. Little Ola’s became so popular that, in July, Mr. Fojtasek opened a brick-and-mortar location, with plans to open more.

Plant Growth

When the Ford, an outdoor music venue in Los Angeles, reopened this summer, management chose just one food vendor to cater to its 2,000-odd guests: Jocelyn Ramirez of Todo Verde. Ms. Ramirez is known for her plant-based Mexican food — ceviche made from fresh hearts of palm; mac and cheese studded with poblano chiles; and mushroom mole tacos. That choice might have seemed like a radical one just a few years ago, but the pandemic has reoriented dining across the country. For ethical, environmental and health reasons, more and more diners are eating vegan and vegetarian food. And forward-thinking chefs aren’t putting meatless dishes on their menus just to check a box for a veggie option: They’re finding creative ways to delight all diners.

Todo Verde is one of many small vegan businesses rapidly expanding to meet a growing audience. Tezeta Alemayehu and Tsega-Ab Fenta’s vegan Ethiopian food was a fixture at the Los Angeles weekend market Smorgasburg, and in September, the duo opened Berbere in Santa Monica. Over the summer, Houston Sauce Pit, a vegan barbecue truck run by Courtney and Chasitie Lindsay, opened Mo Better Brews, its first permanent restaurant space.

Old Cocktails in New Glasses

Sanitary precautions and shutdowns prompted by Covid forced bars to rethink how they served drinks. Back on the shelves went the delicate coupe and martini glasses. Instead, cocktails were dispensed for takeout and delivery in disposable coffee cups, plastic bottles and juice pouches. By now, most bars have reverted to their old glassware. But in states that allow the sale of cocktails to go, the takeaway container is turning into a perennial player. Speak of the Devil, in Lorain, Ohio, has teamed up with two other cocktail bars for a bulk order of capped plastic vessels that look like aspirin bottles. Nickel City, a bar in Austin, Texas, that regularly buys entire barrels from distilleries, now sells that whiskey to customers in seven-ounce flasks.

Nickel City has invested in another fresh source of income that bars discovered during the pandemic: branded merchandise. It will release its latest limited edition of custom mai tai and Zombie glasses in a few weeks. “A lot of cocktail bars always felt the pressure to maintain a more anti-mainstream personality,” said Bobby Heugel, an owner of several Houston bars, who plans to sell custom glasses. “Branding felt like a sellout. Now branding glassware is seen as a way to support a bar.”

Reservations, Reinvented

Online reservation services like Resy, OpenTable and Tock found themselves in a fix early in the pandemic, when there were few tables to reserve. So they adapted their systems and policies to help customers and restaurants, first with navigating the world of takeout and then with reopening. At the outset, these three companies waived the subscription fees they charge restaurants; OpenTable started charging again in March, and Resy resumed in July. Now, as the Delta variant poses new complications, the companies are trying to help customers keep up with health and safety mandates, like the proof of vaccination requirements for specific restaurants.

But while these companies say they are the best platforms to help restaurants steer into the future, some restaurant owners are not convinced. When he opened Mark’s Off Madison in Manhattan last November, the chef Mark Strausman traded his ledger for an online reservations system. He started with Resy, but when many of the bookings turned out to be no-shows, he switched to OpenTable — then back to Resy when he balked at the cost of OpenTable. He thinks back longingly to his old ledger. “No reservation system can deal with a pandemic, that’s for sure,” he said.

A Greater Outdoors

Many parts of life moved outdoors after scientists learned that it was harder to catch the coronavirus in fresh air. The discovery inspired cities including Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Jersey City and Tampa, Fla., to repurpose public space as restaurant seating. More than just streets and sidewalks were taken over. In Los Angeles, an emergency city order allowed restaurants to convert parking lots previously seen only by valets into lush outdoor dining rooms. The one at A.O.C. in West Hollywood, Calif., has been landscaped with potted Meyer lemon and olive trees, bougainvillea and cactus. It’s now “a highly requested area,” said the chef Suzanne Goin, an owner. “We are praying the city will let us make it permanent.”

Foods of the Month

Subscription plans — in the tradition of the Book-of-the-Month Club, wine clubs and C.S.A. boxes — have become a popular strategy for restaurants eager for new income sources. In this iteration, the plans deliver subscribers packages of food, drinks, merchandise and other items on a regular basis. In the pandemic’s early days, restaurateurs and chefs like Jonathan Benno, in New York, created these programs on their own. (He’s still offering them.) Then the aggregators jumped in to do the heavy lifting. One of those companies, Table22, was founded in New York City in May 2020, and now manages subscription plans for more than 200 restaurants nationwide. It’s a way of adding revenue and building customer loyalty, said Sam Bernstein, the company’s chief executive. “Restaurants can offer special features for members like exclusive dinners, or even something as simple as unlimited coffee” — which Panera Bread offers to subscribers. Cote, a Korean steakhouse with locations in Manhattan and Miami, has just introduced a subscription wine club.

Kitchens Without Kings

The chef Ashleigh Shanti has long wondered why the kitchen brigade system — the military-style command structure of executive chef, chef de cuisine, sous-chef and so on — endures in modern restaurants. “Hospitality is the antithesis of battle and war,” she said. So her goal is to establish a more egalitarian kitchen culture next year when she opens her fish-fry restaurant, Good Hot Fish, in Asheville, N.C. She’ll scrap the strict hierarchy and give all full-time, long-term employees a stake in ownership. Chelsea Kravitz, who in October will open Flourish Bakeshop in Glen Head, N.Y., sees eliminating the chain of command as a move toward efficiency. Her employees are cross-trained in various roles — a practice many restaurants adopted during the pandemic to deal with staff shortages — so the bakery can more easily respond to turnover.

At Kuxé, a Mexican restaurant Julian Medina opened in January in Greenwich Village, the appeal is added creativity. The nine chefs, including Mr. Medina, each contribute dishes to the menu; they make the same wage and hope to soon share the profits. At the San Francisco restaurant Bar Agricole, which plans to reopen and to start a spirits company in December, employees’ roles will be fluid, changing to match the jobs that interest them — whether in finance or events or the kitchen — as their careers progress. Thad Vogler, the founder, summed up his approach: “How do we make this a grown-up job?”

One Last Charge

Take a closer look at that check. Many restaurants have added Covid-19 surcharges to help offset costs and losses in the pandemic. Tacking a service charge of anywhere from 2 percent to 30 percent onto the bill is legal in most states, as long as it’s clearly disclosed. Paul Fehribach, the chef and co-owner of Big Jones restaurant in Chicago, said a 20 percent service charge has allowed him to pay his 30 employees at least $16 an hour, with paid vacation and health insurance. Often the charge is simply an automatic tip: Hunter Bay Coffee, in Missoula, Mont. and Arvada, Colo., started adding a 15 percent gratuity early in the pandemic after the staff noticed that customers weren’t tipping on takeout orders. (Cassie Taylor, who works in human resources for the company, said the temporary charge has allowed wages and menu prices to remain as they were.)

The owners of Pizzeria Toro and Jack Tar & the Colonel’s Daughter, in Durham, N.C., say their customers have been generous. Even though each tab carries a 20 percent “fair wage fee” — shared by all hourly employees — some diners still add a tip, said Gray Brooks, the executive chef and an owner. “People who have eaten in the restaurants have been by and large really, really happy and supportive and positive,” he said.


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