What is there to talk about? There’s so much. I’ve debated all month whether to write about things, and just finally put it all off until now. Obviously, there isn’t too much new gossip on resty openings or special events, that part of this column is empty. There were many calls in the early hours that I should be doing my public service and publish lists of available dining options. Several suggested I should curate menus of everyone open. None of that was ever going to happen, and look: you all survived just fine. I decided to merely continue doing what I do every day: post interesting food to make people hungry on Instagram and Facebook. There are, of course, a couple of limitations I am holding myself to. First of all, I am only posting restaurants that are open–unlike a lot of what many of you are seeing on social media today, there will be no #TBT “remembering back to this wonderful candlelit meal we had at ________ and dreaming of when we can go back” posts from me. Also, I am temporarily holding back any criticism of the food or the resty–it’s not the time for that. And this is what I will continue to do.
A lot of things we were excited about on the dining-out front came to a crashing halt on Thursday, March 19. As bad a time as EVERYONE in the hospitality industry has been having, think of all the new openings timed perfectly to this lock-down thingamajigger. We were just at HUMDINGER BREWING‘s opening parties in Arroyo Grande. Their grand opening was scheduled for THAT DAY, Thursday, March 19. SIDECAR had just opened their new location a few days earlier. ABSOLUTION CELLARS barely had the door uncorked on their new tasting room in Morro Bay. HIDDEN KITCHEN moved from Cambria to Cayucos minutes before. ZIGGY’S VEGAN and SLO PHO SHO were just getting noticed. BEAR & THE WREN finally had the new brick & mortar up and running. PICO in Los Alamos had been closed for a month re-structuring and was all geared back up for business. The new owners of STAX WINE BAR were just getting settled in. Not to mention the plethora of spots JUST hitting their stride: CARISSA, CAPE COD EATERY, FINNEY’S KITCHEN, OX & ANCHOR and BRASSERIE SLO. Many MANY more–it was the beginning of a prosperous year for a bunch of local restaurateurs. What could possibly go wrong?
Amid the confusion of the first few days, most scrambled awkwardly to adapt. One of the quickest to react was MEE HENG LOW NOODLE HOUSE in SLO’s Chinatown, who actually closed to inside dining several days BEFORE the order. CHINA DRAGON in Morro Bay went full take-out before-hand also. MEI’S in Shell Beach flat-out bolted the doors. It is of course doubly-sad to imagine the particular impetus driving these moves and their common thread. People are stupid.
And the events. ZINFEST was canceled. HOSPICE DU RHONE postponed. OJAI WINE FEST–the longest-running wine event on the Central Coast–now has a gap in their 34-year record. And those are just the big ones. Hundreds of winery pick-up parties and event weekends on hold. No tourism from out-of-town. Hotels *technically* open, but parking lots–and beds–empty for lack of traveling. A friend of mine was to get married this month and had the Ahwahnee booked. Imagine going back on all those invites. How awkward is THAT?
After the initial confusion and shock, restaurants took a couple different tracks to address the changes. Most merely offered their traditional or a slightly-shortened menu for take-out or curb-side, and delivery services flourished. Several re-tooled significantly. Probably the most notable of these was NOVO, who within DAYS had the full front dining room converted to basically a full-service grocery store, with produce, dairy, meat, bread, charcuterie, dry goods, wine & beer and prepared food all on display and available for sale. PUFFER’S OF PISMO immediately altered the menu to reflect *family-style* groupings of items easy to package and serve at home. This theme has been subsequently adopted by almost every restaurant leading up to dinner-hour–a couple steaks, a few chicken pieces, a rack of ribs, several large sides and even dessert–all for a set price. Several included child’s-burgers or other rugrat-friendly options at 5 bucks a kid. The veteran-chef at the above-mentioned MEE HENG LOW started offering far more traditional dishes to take home than his trademark version of Chinese food. A BUNCH of operators included free in-house delivery with their meals. LIDO put the wine-list on 50% off out-the-door.
Another option was to shutter completely–and while quite a few chose this, it is still a far shorter list than compiling one of everything open. EMBER chose this time to do major improvements. EUREKA! bolted the door. GRAPE LEAF DELI is ghost. Quite noticeable in their darkness are all the brand new $hotel eateries: PIADINA, OX & ANCHOR, and BRASSERIE SLO. CARISSA stayed open all month, finally throwing in the towel last week. It’s just not financially worth it for places like that to keep the lights on for a few plates an hour. Several places took the OPPOSITE pattern: staying closed most of the month but now opening for limited service and take-out this past week. GREAT AMERICAN FISH COMPANY in Morro Bay and CAFE DELLA VIA in Cayucos both re-opened this past weekend after a 5-week break.
Throughout all of this, I keep running into people who are under the opinion restaurants doing take-out, curbside and delivery are *doing okay*. The regularity and pattern of these inferences prove a definite demographic–one which I will be taking definite measures to distance myself–and this column–from. The myopia of this group astounds me. Owners have had to lay off and furlough their entire staff, save a cook or two. Almost every spot I go in to, the owner or the owner’s husband is behind the counter, sweeping, prepping, stocking shelves. The entire food-service infrastructure is flattened. All the food and beverages the hospitality industry provide and consume have no home. Fish are rotting at the docks. Beer is spoiling in tanks. Delivery personnel idle. 50% of Los Angeles is unemployed. Everyone in events or catering just had their entire calendar wiped clean. There are no bartenders. There are no waiters or waitresses. Busboys and dishwashers scrounge for odd jobs while trash receptacles overflow onto the street with the replacement of dishes for to-go packaging. I have at least three confirmations in our area of restaurants which WILL NOT RE-OPEN. Gone for good. This killed them. Even the ones which do *survive*–and what a horrible reality the concept of THAT new landscape is–are going to be stressed far beyond normal operating financial and logistical parameters and many will fail in the near term of alleged “normal”.
I will not surmise what the dining landscape will look like. There will be a lot of adapting–on both sides of the counter. And adapting costs money. People already complain about how much eating out costs, whine about corkage, eschew moderate serving-sizes and Karen about slow service. Can anything good come from this? People are never going to take for granted the ability to sit down and have someone feed you and wash the dishes. There’s one thing. Any others? Oh I know another: YELP may disappear forever. A boy can dream, right?
The reason I am breaking my silence today is because the general drum-beat seems to be a lifting–incrementally at least–of the #stayathome mandate, starting with Friday, May 1st, and progressing again on Monday. I am not going to share my feelings on such moves or how they apply to #shelterinplace or #flattenthecurve or masks or gloves or any of that because this column has no political aspirations or ideals. Let’s merely approach this transition with as much intellect as our personal beliefs hold and with patience and consideration of our friends and community members. And please support your local restaurants.
I think what I’m supposed to say here is, bon appétit.