The custom-made, quadruple-decker trolley that once rolled to tables at Protégé to entice wide-eyed diners with latticed pies, golden kouign-amanns and burnished canelés, is now parked unceremoniously in a corner.
Master Sommelier Dennis Kelly no longer decants any wines tableside in that elegant ritual. For the first
time, Chef Anthony Secviar was compelled to offer takeout, including his ricotta gnudi. Even so, it took only days for the French Laundry veteran to yank that dish, having grown increasingly rankled that the lavish molten
center of those delicate dumplings solidified too much for his liking in transit to a patron’s home.
At this Palo Alto restaurant, which garnered a Michelin star in its first year out of the gate, fine dining right now is anything but fine.
“Most of us are just trying to tread water until we can serve diners inside again,” says co-owner Kelly, referring to the California and Santa Clara County restrictions that limit restaurants to serving food to-go or outdoors only. “Our goal is to breakeven right now. We’re not there yet. We’re optimistic we will get through this. It won’t be easy.”
Not by a long shot. Not when a worldwide pandemic has decimated businesses. Restaurants have borne the
brunt, suffering the highest number of permanent closures nationwide of any industry, according to a Yelp economic study. From March 1 to July 10, the Bay Area recorded 5,048 restaurant closures, the third-highest number among major metropolitan areas nationwide.
Of those, 369 shuttered permanently. Among them was San Mateo’s Viognier, the restaurant inside gourmet market Draeger’s that Chef Gary Danko launched; and Maum, the high-end Korean restaurant in Palo Alto that earned a Michelin star for its precise cuisine showcasing specialty produce grown on a private Los Altos
Hills farm. When new health protocols mandated 6-foot distancing, Maum owners and co-chefs Michael
and Meichih Kim couldn’t foresee any way to reconfigure their intimate dining room, where guests had sat together at a 16-seat communal table. They made the painful decision to close Maum the restaurant to reopen it as Maum the de facto artisanal pantry. Then in mid-August, the couple announced that they were parting ways with Maum.
At a time when so many people have lost their lives, fallen ill or been laid off, it may seem crass to mourn the demise of some of the highest echelons of dining. Yet there are few better bellwethers of normalcy than the state of fine dining. After all, who doesn’t long for a time and place to enjoy exquisite food and drink with friends and family without a care in the world again?
But how many of these celebrated establishments will withstand this precarious time? And how many will be forced to change irreparably?
In some ways, fine dining may be better equipped to endure, as many such establishments are fortunate
to benefit from the backing of well-heeled investors. Some such as Michelin-starred Plumed Horse in Saratoga and Michelin three-starred Manresa in Los Gatos had the wherewithal to buy their own building, insulating them against the whims of a landlord. But fine dining also requires a higher staff-to-diner ratio, making it more expensive to operate. And it calls for a certain ambiance, which is why some have opted not to pivot to outdoor dining at this time, including Michelin two-starred Lazy Bear, which is located in San Francisco’s Mission District,
and San Jose’s first Michelin-starred restaurant, Adega, which has a rear parking lot, but one that houses trash
Despite the turmoil, a number of high-end restaurateurs remain bullish about their survival, even if almost all are losing significant revenue now.
“Since the 1990s, people have been saying that fine dining is over,” says Peter Armellino, chef-partner of Plumed Horse. “Fine dining will never die. People will always want a celebratory experience. The joy delivered by top restaurants in the world is something the world needs.”
Arguably maybe even more so now. At The Restaurant at Meadowood, the Michelin three-starred destination
in St. Helena, demand for its new outdoor tables is far outstripping capacity. Executive Chef Christopher Kostow, who served 60 diners indoors nightly pre-pandemic, now accommodates 50 diners outdoors
each evening for an hours-long, $360 per person tasting menu.
When San Mateo County briefly allowed indoor restaurant dining at 50 percent capacity, Selby’s in Redwood
City and Michelin-starred The Village Pub in Woodside both filled up quickly. It took only four days, though, before the county reversed itself — but not before those restaurants racked up at least 100 reservations apiece that then had to be canceled, according to Tim Stannard, founding partner of the Bacchus Management Group, which owns both establishments.
“Everyone is trying to figure out what fine dining is in this environment. For us, that means giving guests what they want, not forcing them to have the experience you want them to have, which is why we now serve fried chicken along with lobster thermidor at the Pub,” says Stannard, who weathered the permanent shuttering in July of his casual Mayfield Bakery & Cafe in Palo Alto after 11 years of operation. “I think fine dining may come back with a vengeance.”
To that end, The Village Pub spent $50,000 to build a new deck to serve diners outside. Plumed Horse, which had halted operations, spent an equally hefty sum to build an interim dining area outside its doors to serve à la carte Japanese A5 Wagyu rib eye and black truffle pasta, as well as to start offering takeout for the first time.
Will that still merit the Michelin star that Armellino has earned and maintained since 2009? For now, the Michelin Guide has hit pause on passing muster on California restaurants. Even if restaurants are forced to make permanent changes to the layout of dining rooms or to their style of service, it won’t count against them, according to Nora Vass, director of food and travel experiences for Michelin North America. For Michelin, it’s all about the food on the plate, she says, including the quality of ingredients, cooking skills, the chef’s personality as expressed in the cuisine, value for the money and consistency.
Despite already selecting finalists, the James Beard Foundation took the unprecedented step in August to forgo bestowing chef and restaurant awards this year, concluding it would be “unfair and misguided” to do so. The foundation also intends to spend the next year overhauling the awards system to increase the diversity of nominees and to remove systemic biases.
“We are committed to modifying the process to reflect the current state of the industry,” says Clare Reichenbach, foundation CEO. “While we don’t have concrete changes to announce yet, we are auditing all processes to ensure the awards are equitable and accessible.”
Chef David Barzelay, whose Lazy Bear has been a Beard semifinalist, is not worried about losing such honors, despite the fact that his restaurant faces drastic changes. Pre-pandemic, 40 guests at a time mingled upstairs over caviar canapes and a crystal punch bowl before descending downstairs to two expansive communal tables, where they were simultaneously served a $221 tasting menu.
What was once designed to be an extravagant dinner party has morphed temporarily into Lazy Bear Camp Commissary, selling take-and-bake cinnamon rolls and spicy fried chicken biscuits to go. When indoor dining resumes, Barzelay still plans on offering a tasting menu of some sort, maybe revolving around themes such as heirloom tomatoes or even barbecue, with guests sitting at separate tables at staggered times. In short, much like a regular restaurant. Jettisoning his original vaunted vision doesn’t faze Barzelay, who’s used to upheaval, having taken up cooking after being laid off as a lawyer.
“We’re not going to do anything just to keep the stars. We’ll do what makes sense for us,” Barzelay says. “We think we can still deliver a unique and compelling experience, no matter what we do.”
It’s that kind of lofty endeavor for which chefs are banking diners will always hunger. “There’s something aspirational about a group of clear-eyed people from different corners of the world, backgrounds and experiences, working together to create joy and wonder, and bring comfort to those who experience it,” says Kostow of The Restaurant at Meadowood. “We provide beauty in a time when there’s an absence of it.”
Adega, San Jose: It may not seem an ideal time to open a new restaurant, but Carlos
Carreira, co-owner of Adega, plans on doing just that by the end of this year. Petiscos, the
planned Portuguese small-plates eatery, twice the size of Adega and likely in downtown San
Jose, will allow for the rehiring of staff he was forced to lay off when the fine-dining restaurant
went to takeout only.
The Restaurant at Meadowood, St. Helena: Staff members have switched to cushier shoes
now that they are serving diners in a new outdoor space that’s much farther from the kitchen
than the regular dining room. It now requires a 40-yard trek — each way — to serve each
Flea Street Cafe, Menlo Park: At this beloved 40-year-old restaurant, proprietor Jesse Cool
includes a free mini bottle of hand sanitizer with every to-go order. Jesse’s hand sanitizer
contains 75 percent alcohol and is scented with wildflowers. Nearly 200 bottles are given out
Spruce, San Francisco: This Michelin-starred restaurant has morphed into a temporary wine
shop — one selling prestige labels at deep discounts from its cellar and that of sister restaurant
The Village Pub in Woodside, both of which garnered Wine Spectator Grand Awards. As of
early August, sales revenues, which are helping pay employees’ salaries at Bacchus
Management Group restaurants, neared $2 million.
Lazy Bear, San Francisco: Two 22-foot-long American elm communal tables, each seating 21
diners, were the hallmark of the dining room. Because of 6-foot social distancing requirements,
Chef David Barzelay will have to abandon them. Fortunately, he’s taken up woodworking and
plans to make the new, smaller tables himself.
Plumed Horse, Saratoga: For seven years, one of the most luxurious and contentious
ingredients has been verboten in California. But in July, a federal judge ruled that Californians
can now legally buy foie gras again. Even so, chefs still can’t sell it. Chef Peter Armellino
remains determined to figure out a way to provide that fatty duck liver to patrons either dining
outside or getting takeout.