From March to June 2020, there was no restaurant dining in New York. Owners realized huge revenue drops, rents went unpaid, and cooks and servers filed for unemployment. Some restaurants were able to pivot effectively to offer take out, but fine-dining establishments faced a particularly difficult transition. With an emphasis on special-occasion atmosphere and superlative service — and price tags to match — the experience wasn’t meant to be packed into to-go containers.
“It was very difficult for us to transition to something we’d never done before,” says Chef Peter X. Kelly of Xaviars Restaurant Group, which operates Restaurant X in Congers and X2O Xaviars on the Hudson in Yonkers. “We started doing family-style meals [for takeout], and the presentation and price point were hard decisions.” Small, in-house catered events constitute roughly 35 percent of Kelly’s business, and off-premise catering provides another revenue stream. “That’s been a disaster,” he says. “There were no events. That’s been the hardest part to recoup, and it’s a critical part of our business.
In Fishkill, Scott Rosenberg was preparing to open Il Figlio Enoteca last fall, after months of COVID-related delays. “Everything was getting worse again, and no one knew what was going to happen. I was talking to other restaurateurs and purveyors, and they were saying business just fell off the face of a cliff,” he recalls. “I opened the doors [in January], and I didn’t think anyone was going to come.”
Brand loyalty turned out to be his saving grace. For nearly 20 years, Rosenberg had cultivated a roster of regulars at Il Barilotto, which closed in March 2020. His customers, fatigued by months of cooking at home, were ready to return to dining out. “Never did we think our reputation was going to come in so handy,” says Rosenberg. “People are just so excited to be out for dinner. They want a proper cocktail. They want to be served and taken care of.”
At Restaurant X and X2O, Kelly similarly saw customers return once restaurants reopened. “People want to go back to the places they’re most comfortable and support them,” he explains. “I am hopeful [about the future] because I’ve seen the graciousness and generosity of a clientele built over the last 35-plus years.”
A weighty reputation likely helped Blue Hill at Stone Barns weather some big changes during the pandemic, too. Pre-COVID, diners regularly spent more than $250 per person on multi-hour tasting menus at the Michelin-starred restaurant. Soon after the shutdown, Blue Hill partnered with the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture to offer resourcED boxes, featuring produce, house-baked bread, local meats and fish, and a variety of products from the Blue Hill kitchens. To replace in-person dining, the restaurant created outdoor-only, tasting-menu-inspired picnics that carried the restaurant’s ethos forward.
“The middle of the pandemic seemed like a good time to redefine sensibilities,” explains chef/co-owner Dan Barber. “Blue Hill has always been about more than a white tablecloth. It’s the servers who tell the story and give guests an immersive experience…but beyond that, it’s highly educational.”
The big question remains: Has our year of take out permanently diminished the demand for fine dining? Not necessarily.
“I think the fine-dining sector will contract. People are comfortable having a celebration over a simpler meal,” says Kelly, pointing to the continued emergence of more casual restaurants that offer high-quality ingredients and cooking, a trend that was in play long before the pandemic. “But there will always be a celebration, whether it’s a graduation, a promotion, or an anniversary, where people want something that’s a little more, a touch of elegance and professionalism.”
Like Kelly, Rosenberg agrees that fine dining will have its place. “I think the casual market is incredibly flooded,” he says. “[Fine dining] is timeless, but the experience has to be great with amazing, personalized service; ambience; and very delicious, satisfying food. If you’re not meeting all three, I don’t know how successful you’re going to be.”
At Blue Hill, Barber envisions that fine dining can continue to play an influential role in our food system. After decades in the kitchen, Barber has stepped back to allow a rotation of visiting chefs to interpret Blue Hill’s message and its partnership with Stone Barns through their own, unique lenses.
“The demand for fine dining will rebound, but people will demand a lot more than a memorable meal,” he explains. “Our education team is collecting, organizing, and sharing the new knowledge that each chef brings into our kitchen, producing resources that will be free and accessible to the public. We intend this to be a new model for the white-tablecloth restaurant — for how chefs can lead us toward a tastier, more ecological future.”