Covid - will it be the death of the tasting menu?

The thought occurs that, when restaurants finally reopen (possibly from next month in the UK), there will be inevitably changes to the way customers interact with them.

Three of our favourite regular places only serve multi-course tasting menus. Will the menu concept survive when everyone is trying to reduce the amount of contact between staff and customers. Will we really want a variety of chefs and servers bringing several courses to our table, standing there to explain the dish, daintily pointing out that the orange thing on the plate is a carrot? Or are we likely to return to the old days of three course meals - ordered from the menu, cos it’s what you want to eat, with someone simply putting a plate of food in front of you and coming back to take it away when you’ve finished. I’ll put my cards on the table saying I rather hope that it’ll be the latter.

I similarly wonder about the wine flight that often accompanies the tasting menu. Will we want the sommelier appearing before every course to explain the intricacies of each wine being served? Or will we go back to the old days, when you just ordered a bottle and it was put on the table for you to pour yourself? I don’t have a dog in that fight as I don’t drink alcohol, but Mrs H does. She only took up flights because it’s not easy to know what bottle to buy when you don’t actually know exactly what you’re going to be eating.

Maybe Covid will bring these sorts of changes and, depending on your point of view, a tiny bit of good may have come from it.

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You ask some very good questions. I think for people who are braver and want to participate eating in the restaurant, we’ll see fewer touches at the table.

Maybe there will be some electronic innovations where a screen is at the table, and the chef or sommelier can explain what you are eating?

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you could totally have that on an ipad or even printed out

I think much of the ‘explaining’ could be trimmed anyway

I would imagine the issue is less the table service (likely limited staff to manage social distancing) and more the time allowed for eating. Lingering will be an issue given that more time means more exposure. Tasting menus are meant to be more than a 90min experience, no? (I mean, dinner too, but many places have already created this as the measure if they are busy…)

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And also less turnover, hence fewer patrons per day. If the restaurants are limited to 25%-50% capacity, you can bet they want people to (in the words of Zorro’s father in ZORRO AND SON) “Get in, make your Z , and get out.”

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I’m going to be the audience for changes if any, although I expect lots of change. My wife and I are not expecting to dine in at any restaurant until 2021. The risk is too high. We’ll let others take it. We have a family gathering originally scheduled for Easter, then for today, and now for mid-August. Unless something change changes fairly radically I expect we won’t attend because we simply can’t count on others to be as careful as we are.

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Good point. I’ve never known a tasting menu place where the table isnt yours for the evening. If capacity is to be reduced - and safety concerns suggest there will have to be some distancing - restaurants have limited choices. Accept lower profits. Increase prices. Or turn tables. The latter simply doesnt work for a tasting menu deisgned to be eaten over 3 or 4 hours.

Here’s another thing that Mrs H & I were discussing today. How does distancing work in a restaurant? I mean walking about or in a shop, I know what the UK’s 2 metres means. But where does the distance get measured from/to in a restaurant. My head to the head of the person at the next table? The edge of my table to to the edge of theirs. What about if we’re sitting back to back, rather than to the side of each other - is it from the back of my chair to the back of theirs, or is it table edge to table edge?

Philadelphia is opening to outdoor dining today. The rules are chair backs (not tables) have to be six feet apart. There must be a six foot aisle between tables. Essentially every table has a six foot “box.” Street lanes, even whole streets, will close to allow for outdoor seating. Other restaurants will be allowed to set up tables in parking lots or vacant lots.

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Which is an interesting factor. “Dinner” at home for my wife and me is two hours plus including the together time of prep, cooking, eating, clean up. “Eating” is about twenty minutes. That’s very different from a tasting menu dining out (or in - the vocabulary is a moving target).

Restaurants in Paris are open only exterior, on the pavement. So it depends a lot on the weather, and the last few days it was exceptionally cold.

Although personally, I don’t think tasting menu has any adverse effect on people desire to eat out. From what I observe, people on the whole are more careful, some act like the COVID is gone. I think people who are really worried simply don’t eat out. A few places I’ve seen that used to serve tasting menu, even during the lockdown, they sell tasting menu as take away. They announce the menu of the day, with like 6 courses, they pack neatly and you can pick up the order from the restaurant.

I think for the reduction number of tables, a restaurant if they adapt and continue to serve take out, maybe they can survive. Pure tasting menu restaurants especially smaller sizes ones, can lose half of their normal revenues, can be quite tough, I think those places might need to get COVID loans or some laid off.

Hey, they are in the kitchen and prepare what you eat, tasting or non tasting menu or even take out. This is always a risk one has to bear if you wants to eat out. Maybe they can just send out the same waiter wearing mask rather than different people all the time.

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At two of the three places I have in mind, each dish is served by the chef who cooked it. Perhaps that will have to change and go back to servers serving.

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If restaurants are going to be limited to 25-50% of original capacity, they are going to need smaller menus with less choice in order to reduce waste and be more efficient in all aspects. What could be simpler than a tasting menu?! Make a reservation and the chef or owner knows exactly how many customers he has to feed and how much of each ingredient he will need. That works with an ordinary a la carte menu too. The only way restaurants are going to survive going forward is with customers making reservations and ordering at least a day in advance.

That’s the economics. The health risks will continue to evolve.

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I wasn’t paying enough attention to catch the name, but today’s radio discussed New England restaurants just now moving from two weeks of outdoor-only seating into indoor tables with decreased occupancy. Protocol at the one described was that when you arrive for your reservation, a menu is texted to you as you wait in your car. You order, and are called inside when your food is ready. They bring it to the table, then seat you. Sounds completely certain to fail.

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I suspect there will be few places that follow that model.

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We have a well respected restaurant nearby that I have never visited. The chef is excellent and our local NJ HOs rave about his food but the one caveat is that a regular meal there takes about 3 hrs. I have no idea how he will change in the future, but I will not be spending three hours in an enclosed space anytime in the near future.

Time is an obvious issue for the “tasting menu only” restaurants. Favourite place of ours (Michelin starred) is a minimum 3 hours. They only serve eight covers but I think they would have the space to add another couple and still keep to good distancing. I don’t really have a worry for them as they are not really going to have reduced income. But other places will have to reduce the number of tables which means they will have to suffer a loss of income, increase prices or somehow turn the tables. And I really don’t know how, in practice, you turn the tables when dinner is taking three hours or more.

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Here, tasting menus is becoming rather common, especially for younger ambitious chefs that are starting their restaurants, it is not only limited to the high end places that serves 3-hour menu, but those can be bistrot like places that serve tasting menu in 1- 1.5 hours especially lunch . So I think you have a certain type of tasting menu restaurants in mind. It’s also a way to cook the same menu for everybody and with reservation confirmed, I believed there is fewer spoilage as ingredients are ordered beforehand.

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^^ This is one of the reasons my husband and I have loved traveling and eating in France when we’ve had the chance. And though we must wait until better days are back, we will return.

I think John @Harters asked a good question. The tasting menu is a commercial solution (product? service?) for something we (big we) used to do ourselves. My wife’s birthday is coming up in late August. I don’t really have a plan yet but I’m thinking about it. Absent COVID-19 going out for an evening together would be nice. The direction I’m headed is a menu of my own. Weather and mosquitoes will dictate inside or out.

Cheese and bread with preserved meats. Perhaps gazpacho or vichyssoise. Salad. I have a butane catering burner so I can cook scallops. A small battery, an inverter, and a slow cooker and I can keep a pre-cooked side warm. I am sure I can come up with more. Doing it myself may be more appreciated than waving a credit card at someone else. Thinking.

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“Food is a pretty good prism through which to view humanity.”

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