After months of shutdowns from the coronavirus crisis, restaurants are starting to reopen their dining rooms in certain regions across the United States. Thirty-three states now allow restaurant dining of some kind, whether that’s state-wide, or limited to specific counties, like in Florida and Missouri.
“It has been a very emotional experience for both our guests and staff as we opened our doors and welcomed the community back to our table,” said wine director Suzan Boyce of Boyce Restaurant Concepts in Alabama, whose Cotton Row Restaurant and Galley & Garden reopened last week. Both hold Wine Spectator’s Best of Award of Excellence. The restaurants’ new protocols include requiring all staff interacting with guests to wear masks, and all kitchen staff and bartenders to wear gloves.
Most of those 33 states require capacity limits of 25 to 50 percent, with additional restrictions such as spacing tables 6 feet apart and limiting the number of guests in each party. States such as Virginia, Connecticut and New Hampshire are only allowing outdoor seating for now. Big chains have been quick to make moves; Landry's, which operates hundreds of restaurants under brands such as Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse and Morton's, and Darden, the group behind brands such as Capital Grille and Seasons 52, reopened all their locations where stay-at-home orders were lifted by May 4. Cameron Mitchell Restaurants announced May 19 that it would reopen select concepts in its portfolio, which includes seafood chain Ocean Prime. Some smaller operations are holding off for now.
But Boyce reported strong community support, as did wine director Al Fini of Award of Excellence winner It's Italian Cucina in Austin, Texas, which reopened its dining room May 1 at 25 percent capacity. “We have been overwhelmed with the response of people, our regulars and new people,” Fini said. Additional safety measures include requiring all employees to wear masks and gloves, and fully sanitizing tables and chairs after each guest. Like many other restaurant professionals, Fini acknowledged that the business won’t be profitable at 25 percent capacity, but said that’s not the point.
“There’s a reason we call it the service industry. We’re all here to serve, rain or shine. We can’t turn our backs during the hard times,” he said. “Right now, it’s not about the money, it’s about the service, and it’s time to give back.”—Julie Harans
Philip Tessier is now chef-partner of Best of Award of Excellence winner Press Restaurant in St. Helena, Calif. Tessier is returning to the restaurant world after a seven-year hiatus in which he competed for and coached Team USA in the Bocuse d’Or international culinary competition. He formerly held positions at prestigious establishments including chef Thomas Keller’s Grand Award winners the French Laundry and Per Se.
He’ll now oversee culinary and operational developments at Press, which has a 1,600-selection wine list focusing on California, from lesser-known white blends to blue-chip Cabernet Sauvignons. While the restaurant is temporarily closed for dine-in service from the coronavirus crisis, Tessier is busy running its takeout programs and helping lead Press’ meal-donation effort. “We’ve been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm from our guests,” Tessier said of the closure period. According to a release, the chef is also “transitioning the restaurant’s focus from a classic steak house to a modern, refined American cuisine,” to complement the cellar’s large collection of Napa Valley wines.
Current to-go offerings include the full wine list, with vintages dating to the 1950s, and guest favorites such as the fried chicken sandwich and salad Niçoise with seared ahi tuna.—Taylor McBride
Following a challenging three months for restaurants, chef David Chang’s Momofuku group announced it will not reopen two of its 16 concepts: CCDC in Washington, D.C., and Nishi in New York City, both Award of Excellence winners.
“It’s been emotional for me,” said Chang on the May 13 episode of his podcast, The Dave Chang show. “I’m still at war with this decision. It’s not ever going to sit right with me. And at the same time I understand exactly why we need to do it.”
In a public statement, Momofuku CEO Marguerite Zabar Mariscal explained that, to prepare for safe and successful reopenings in a transformed world, investments had to be reconsidered. And the margins at both locations were apparently too thin. “Neither restaurant had enough cushion to sustain the shock of the crisis,” Mariscal said in the statement. For now, the restaurants’ former employees will have access to Momofuku’s nonprofit Bluetape Fund, health care and counseling resources.
And more changes are coming for Momofuku’s New York City presence. The Award of Excellence–winning Ssäm Bar will move from the East Village to the South Street Seaport, where it will take over the larger Bar Wayō location. The concept will maintain some features from Bar Wayō. “We loved what we created with Wayō,” said Mariscal, “but we have to focus on our restaurants with the most potential.”—Collin Dreizen
What’s lockdown been like for two of the biggest names in the culinary world? On recent episodes of Straight Talk, Wine Spectator’s Instagram Live series sponsored by Wine Access, executive editor Thomas Matthew spoke with Danny Meyer and Emeril Lagasse about their experiences staying home, how their companies are coping and what they’re doing to help.
On May 14 and 19, respectively, Meyer and Lagasse said they’ve been grateful for the time at home with family, but are eager to rehire staff and get back to business since closing all their restaurants in March. “But at the same time, we also have to be smart and we have to be safe,” Lagasse said.
Meyer mentioned recent efforts to raise money for his out-of-work staff, and Lagasse reported that his team members in New Orleans are donating 1,200 to 1,800 meals per week to doctors, nurses and other first responders. Both restaurateurs praised the unity of the industry during this crisis, while looking hopefully toward the future. “We are irrepressible in our desire to gather, and the minute that that’s safe to do it, we’re going to be there,” Meyer said.
Watch the full episodes on Wine Spectator’s IGTV channel, and tune in tonight, May 20, at 7 p.m. ET for a conversation with Rocco Lombardo of Wilson Daniels.—J.H.
Keep up with the latest restaurant news from our award winners: Subscribe to our free Private Guide to Dining newsletter, and follow us on Twitter at WSRestoAwards and on Instagram at wsrestaurantawards.