It’s clear that some people are ready and eager to return to restaurants, despite the continued spread of COVID-19 nationwide. And if a recent Yelp economic impact report is to be believed, they don’t care about sharing food, either. According to the review site’s data, restaurants with a focus on group dining are among those that are seeing increased consumer interest as restaurants started to open back up for in-person dining. Specifically, fondue restaurants are up 123 percent, tapas bars are up 98 percent, and hot pot is up 49 percent. But as outlandish as seeking out summertime fondue may sound to many of us, anecdotally, any fears around virus transmission haven’t dimmed diners’ appetites for shared plates and family-style meals. As Chicago chef Diana Davila put it, “People don’t give a fuck.”
Diners on Mi Tocaya Antojería’s outdoor patio are ordering and sharing Davila’s larger format dishes like carne asada and pollo con mole negro. In New York City, diners shared whole fish and lobster pad thai at Thai restaurant Wayla and split fried calamari and spreads at Greek restaurant Taverna Kyclades. Also in Chicago, at the Mediterranean small-plates restaurant Avec, chef de cuisine Dylan Patel says that the restaurant is still serving a menu entirely made up of dishes to share. The kitchen is happy to divide food onto separate plates if customers ask, he says, but for the most part, people are comfortable sharing.
The coronavirus pandemic has devastated restaurants. Many have closed permanently, and those that have survived so far have adapted by building up takeout operations or pivoting (selling groceries, for example). Now, as states allow restaurants to open their dining rooms and patios, there are new questions about how restaurants will need to adapt to in-person service and when diners can expect to eat out like they used to (which for some diners, appears to be now). But how can restaurants that serve small plates and family-style meals make it work in a time when every social interaction requires careful risk calculus? And what of communal tables in the age of social distancing?
In June, Davila opened Mi Tocaya Antojeria for patio dining, after weeks limiting her operation to takeout only. In its pre-pandemic incarnation, the restaurant served small, medium, and large plates and full family-style dinners on Sundays. It was Mexican food that called for gathering together and passing dishes around, and plating those dishes was one of Davila’s favorite parts of running a restaurant, she says. Now, though, the menu is pared down to those items that can be easily packaged to-go, and everything is served in takeout containers. “It’s a whole different way of service,” Davila says. “We’re a small restaurant and our dining room has basically turned into storage for all our to-go containers.”
But that doesn’t mean that sharing food is off the table. The menu now includes larger dishes, like carne asada and pollo con mole negro, as well as tortas and burritos. “It’s still nostalgic, shareable dishes,” Davila says. “I wanted to offer a menu that really stuck to things you crave.” And while the new menu was initially designed to be good for takeout, where people would surely be comfortable sharing with those they’re quarantining with, Mi Tocaya is serving the same food to customers who reserve spots on the restaurant’s patio, still in takeout containers. Reducing contact between staff and guests is extremely important to Davila (the patio has its own entrance and guests use a separate bathroom from employees) and along with keeping things streamlined on the line as staff fulfill takeout and patio orders, serving large-format meals in takeout containers feels right from a safety perspective. “It makes everyone feel a lot better if they can throw everything out versus putting their hands all over it,” she says.
At Avec, customers have been eager to return to eat the Mediterranean small plates the restaurant is known for, according to Patel. “Coming to eat here as a group, they know what to expect and we’ve never been about individual plates,” he says. “We’re trying to maintain who we are and what we do. I think that’s very important.”
Still, there have been some adjustments. Avec used to offer between eight and 12 small plates, plus larger dishes to share. Now, there are 10 dishes total, all for sharing, that customers must order before they arrive at the restaurant, where they are seated at socially distanced patio tables. Each seat is set with a plate and a napkin roll of utensils; the dishes arrive with separate serving utensils. While Patel estimates that the vast majority of guests seem to be coming from the same household, he’s noticed that’s not the case for every party. The staff has even seen some early dates on the Avec patio.
Walter Manzke, chef at LA restaurant Republique, says that when the restaurant reopened for indoor dining, around half of the restaurant’s furniture went into storage to comply with social distancing. The plan was to open first for daytime service and then add dinner. Two-tops made up the bulk of the seating, and Manzke was taking this into consideration when planning an eventual dinner menu with all portions designed for two people. “For the most part, two people are eating together and they feel comfortable eating off the same plate because they live together or come in together,” he says. Dishes for sharing, he thought, would actually be the most practical. “The kitchen is producing less dishes because everyone is sharing them, so we’re able to make them at a much higher quality,” he explains. “If we had to change to where every person is getting their own dish I think the quality would suffer.” Because if every person got their own dish, it would double the number of dishes the kitchen would need to produce.
On July 1, Republique closed its dining room again, following new state mandates. In recent weeks, the restaurant has added outdoor tables that seat two and four. But back in June, Manzke looked forward to the day larger groups would return. “I hope we don’t lose the ability to serve family-style because I think that’s been such a great thing not only for us but for so many restaurants,” Mankze says. “It brings this communal aspect of eating where you can try many things, and I would hate to lose that.”
One aspect of convivial restaurant dining that’s on pause for the foreseeable future, however, is the communal table. Along with small plates, Avec was equally known for its communal dining set up, in which separate parties sit side-by-side at eight-person tables. Now that Chicago is allowing indoor dining, diners will be spaced out at its five large tables indoors. “Before you were sitting a foot away from your neighbor,” Patel says. “Those days might be a few months away.”
Manzke says that the restaurant’s pause in service has actually given him the opportunity to refinish the long wooden communal tables that were the centerpiece of Republique’s dining room. “The great thing about being closed and having all this time is I was able to restore those tables so they look new and shiny,” Manzke says. “They look beautiful.” In other words, he isn’t looking to redesign the entire dining room just yet.
No restaurant is running exactly like it did before, and although there’s a long list of things that need to change to make restaurants better going forward, for the restaurants meant to be places where people can gather together and share food, big tables and small plates aren’t on it. Certain cuisines necessitate a kind of communal dining, whether it’s dipping skewers into the same pot, grabbing a tapa from the same plate, or spooning a curry from a large bowl at the center of the table. Soon after the spread of the novel coronavirus reached pandemic levels, Pim Techamuanvivit, chef of Nari and Kin Khao in San Francisco, told me, “Thai people have been serving food on share plates forever. This is our culture. We’re not going to stop and serve everything French style just because there’s a pandemic.” Through the pandemic, Nari has been offering takeout; Kin Khao has temporarily closed.
And while chefs await a complete return to some new version of normal, they adapt without losing sight of their restaurants as they were in a pre-pandemic world. For Davila, doing what she can to continue to pay her bills is what matters most. She never thought she’d be serving takeout containers to patio seats, but as long as diners are willing, she can still make Mi Tocaya Mi Tocaya. “At the end of the day the essence of Mi Tocaya is still very much the same,” she says. “The essence of Mi Tocaya is to share food that is beyond inspiring to me.”