Dreaming of opening a restaurant? Dream on. It’s 2021, and we’re still in the midst of a pandemic. Yet we continue to receive surprising missives from cities across the country, with what sound like exciting new places to find dinner. There’s Off Alley in Seattle, the enormous “Culinary Clubhouse” called The Roost in DC, Apt 4b in Atlanta with its Vinyl Bar and Caribbean fare, and dozens of others. There are food trucks taking the opportunity to settle into permanent homes. And then there are those brave souls who had planned their openings months or years in advance, only to find themselves mid-March with a new and unexpected delay. Here are three stories of chefs and wine directors who opened their doors into a pandemic.
The Tyger, NYC
Dan Skinner and his team planned to open The Tyger last June, until the pandemic put their plans on hold. Working with co-owner Eddy Buckingham’s Tuxedo Hospitality, the group that operates Chinese Tuxedo and Peachy’s, the delay gave them the chance to adapt. The Tyger opened in September, and, by the end of the year, it was the only one of the three still open.
As it turned out, their good fortune was all about the sidewalk. The Tyger happened to have a significant amount of frontage on Howard Street in Lower Manhattan where the team could set up outdoor dining. It also meant that they weren’t tempted to start with takeout. “We didn’t want to risk faltering on our quality because we know that, long-term, we’re going to build off our reputation of dining on-site rather than delivery,” explained Skinner. Once the kitchen got its bearings in November, they started doing takeout and delivery.
Eating al fresco (or as fresco as NYC streets get), guests may have shifted their preferences when it comes to wine. Reds make up the majority of the bottles on their sidewalk tables—a trend Skinner attributes to the cooling temperatures. And the pandemic has guests turning towards the harder stuff. For the last quarter of 2020, The Tyger’s signature cocktails make up one-fifth of the restaurant’s total sales, while wine hovers at around one-tenth.
Skinner hopes to hire a dedicated wine director when their business is strong enough to support it. For now, he continues to oversee the list he assembled, which includes only US wines. That focus has proven to be a challenge, given the cost of many California wines in relation to imports. But he decided to do it when California and Oregon were hit by wildfires in 2020, hoping to support affected wineries and help see them through the woods. —Corey Warren
Oak & Reel, Detroit
“It was always my plan to come back to Michigan,” says Jared Gadbaw. After 12 years in NYC working with Michael White, including nine years as chef at Marea, he and his wife decided it was time. In March of 2018, they moved to Detroit, lined up financial backing and found a space in Milwaukee Junction. “We had about six weeks of construction left when the first shutdown happened,” he recalls.
“I had wanted it to be like Marea, with a robust menu where people could sit at the bar for a casual dinner, or at a table for special occasions.” But there was little demand for weekday service in the neighborhood, and mandates limited the space to 50 percent occupancy, “So, now you’re trying to make a week’s worth of income on Fridays and Saturdays, and doing it with half the seats you had planned.” In response, he decided to offer only a fixed-price menu. “I didn’t want to pivot to fast casual and then try to pivot back to fine dining.”
Meanwhile, the team didn’t have much time to get into a flow. Less than ten weeks after opening, they were shut down; Gadbaw had to lay off most of his staff just before the holidays. “I can’t possibly imagine a worse time in the history of civilization to open a restaurant than in 2020. All of the grants and PPP didn’t apply to us, because you had to be open in 2019 in order to show a loss.” With his one remaining employee, Gadbaw worked to crank out holiday meal kits. That turned into a plan for Provision Boxes—ingredients to prepare two meals for two adults. And then they added Work-from-Home lunches. “It allows us to fill in these weekdays when we can’t count on the volume in the restaurant.”
Oak & Reel reopened for indoor dining on February 4. Gadbaw’s reassembled wine team, including Melissa Wilson and Bruce Felts, is working with a tightly-curated list of about 70 selections, and is waiting for the opportunity to grow that list. “I very much want this restaurant to have a deep list, but ultimately we need to earn some money so I can buy the wine,” notes Gadbaw.
Gadbaw and his team completed their first Valentine’s Day service as this issue headed to press. “It was just nice to cook for people again,” he says.
Perle was scheduled to open on Union Street in Pasadena, CA in March 2020. At least, that had been the most recently revised plan, according to Roderick Daniels. The former sommelier at Auburn, he’d teamed up with chef Dean Yasharian, the former sous chef of Restaurant Daniel, Bar Boulud and Gordon Ramsay at The London in New York. The two had planned to execute two “friends and family” dinners before LA County shut down all in-person dining. “We never even got to do a single, proper service,” Daniels says.
It wasn’t until June that they were able to reopen, at 60 percent capacity indoors. Daniels brought back the furloughed staff, ordered new inventory and crafted tables with plexiglass dividers to protect both the guests and the team. It was a full week of preparations and training to ready the staff for service in a pandemic. Four days later, indoor dining in Los Angeles shut down again.
The only saving grace was that the city of Pasadena allowed them a few tables on the sidewalk and they were able to expand onto the street, using concrete Jersey dividers to barricade parking spaces. Inspired by his two-sided menu—one meat and seafood, the other plant-based and vegetarian—Daniels has found ways to bridge the wine divide. If a couple can’t decide between Crémant de Loire or gewürztraminer with the yellowtail crudo and the butternut squash soup? “I’ll just bring you both a half-glass of each, and we can talk through the process together,” Daniels says, laughing with relief while he recounts some of his favorite comments from guests as they settled in against the Jersey dividers: “Oh, I love this, it reminds me of Paris,” or, “Are you kidding me? I’m so excited to be dining out, I’d lean on a fire hydrant.”
This story appears in the print issue of April 2021.
Like what you read? Subscribe today.