Irene Justiniani of Pastis in NYC on the Omicron Surge and Pandemic Exploration - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Irene Justiniani of Pastis in NYC on the Omicron Surge and Pandemic Exploration

Less than a year after the hotly anticipated re-opening of Keith McNally’s scene-y New York brasserie Pastis, the pandemic hit. For two months, its doors were closed yet again, and as with many restaurants in New York City, reopening was incremental. Beverage manager Irene Justiniani identified a need to adjust the price of bottles, recognizing that after months of lockdown, customers either couldn’t afford to spend a ton on wine or simply weren’t willing to, having acclimated to retail prices. In the early stages of reopening, the restaurant implemented a time limit on indoor dining, but as restrictions relaxed, Justiniani has noticed a real thirst among diners to engage with the wine staff, to talk about wine and venture into less familiar territory — the Jura, the Loire and southern France — to satisfy their palates. 

We shut down March 16 of 2020 when everybody else did. We reopened mid-May for takeout and delivery, and we did that for a month, and then we were able to open outdoor dining. We were quite busy, and then the riots happened; that didn’t shut us down, but we had to close a lot earlier than we were planning on. Little by little, we started building. There were so many regulations at the beginning, and they allowed us to expand a little bit on the street and then the businesses that were next to Pastis,  were closed, so they allowed us to use their sidewalk or their side of the street. And so, we ended up with something like 30 or 35 tables at one point. We were crazy busy. We had people waiting an hour or two for a table. It was good. Lotta work, but it was fun.

In 2021 we started with no indoor dining. They shut us down right after Thanksgiving 2020. It was very cold. However, we were busy. People waited, they made reservations and walked in despite the weather. We were doing a good amount of business early on, and then we were allowed to seat indoors at 25% capacity right before Valentine’s Day. We were packed every single day. Delta slowed us down a little bit, but it wasn’t as bad as we anticipated it to be. In September, October and November we were busy, lines of people. Then Omicron happened, and that really nearly shut us down for a couple weeks. We all got sick. I got very sick. I developed bronchitis and then pneumonia. 

So Omicron was harder on you as a restaurant than Delta?

Yeah. We all got sick within a week or two. Half the staff, and then the other half. We had to limit seating capacity. We didn’t want people to sit too close to each other, and we didn’t have the staff to accommodate 300, 400 guests per night, so that nearly shut us down, but we hung in there.

So it sounds like you were working within the parameters of the regulations that the city put forth, but there was no real dip in the volume of customers who wanted to come dine.

One hundred percent. We were booked every night. Tremendous support from the neighborhood and tourists. And I think in some capacity it had to do with so many restaurants in the neighborhood shutting down. At one point, there were only two or three restaurants open in the neighborhood, and I think that’s why we were so busy for lunch and dinner every day. Slowly but surely, other restaurants are starting to reopen or open and we’re not as crazy busy as we were six or seven months ago.

Did you experience any pressure to change the scope of the wine program? 

Yes. When we first reopened, we had to lower the prices. During lockdown, people went to the liquor store, so they weren’t used to spending $150 or $200 on a bottle of wine. As I sold out the most expensive bottles of wine, I had to replace them with something that was more affordable in order to attract a clientele that couldn’t spend $200 or $300 dollars on a bottle of wine. We had to make it a little bit more approachable. 

How were sales when you were doing takeout, were people buying wine? 

Very little. We were selling a lot of cocktails. People wanted to drink things that they couldn’t make at home or buy easily. Wine was easy for them to access. We had a frosé machine in-house, and that was crazy in 2020 and 2021.

Did you notice any shift in the tastes of your customers as far as what they were asking for?

When we first reopened for outdoor dining, we had a time limit. Parties of two or three were not allowed to stay in the restaurant for more than an hour and a half. Four or more got two hours. The moment we removed that, things changed. People really want to spend more time at the restaurant. They just want to be out longer. 

How did that play out in terms of the kind of wine they were ordering? Were they more inclined to want more interesting or expensive bottles because they had the time to enjoy and savor them?

More interesting, not necessarily more expensive. They were very interested in something esoteric, they wanted to really talk about wine. “This is what I drank during lockdown, do you have something that’s similar?” “Tell me about this varietal.” People got a lot more chatty.

Were there any categories or bottles or producers that you saw gain popularity?

Before the pandemic I only had one wine from the Jura. And after, I increased it to four or five. Also, with the Loire, before the pandemic I had four or five, now I have about ten. 

Is that the result of customers coming and asking for those wines? 

They’re not asking for them per se. But they’ll come to the restaurant and say, “I was drinking something [during lockdown] that was a little bit drier, and I want to try something similar, what do you have?” So, I start talking about cabernet franc, or wines from the south of France: carignan, cinsault. They got more open in terms of asking about wine and being willing to try something different. 

It’s so interesting, that desire for engagement that was missing when there was a time limit on the dining experience. 

That’s something I often ask the servers. “Do you think it’s because they’re really open to trying something different? Or do they just want to talk to someone?”

Lauren Gitlin is an erstwhile wine professional, sometimes writer and full-time goat farmer. She makes skyr and hugs ruminants on Villa Villekulla Farm in the Delectable Mountains of Vermont, where she lives with her husband.

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