It’s one year since COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic. As the vaccination process continues, many of us are climbing out of our rabbit holes and surveying the decimated landscape. At the height of the pandemic, the National Restaurant Association estimated that between 20-30% of U.S. restaurants would permanently close. They weren’t far off: the last reliable figures from December indicate we had lost 110,000 restaurants by the end of 2020, or one in six. Given the low level of government support, it’s safe to assume things will get worse.
Initial predictions were that fine dining establishments would be hit the hardest, particularly small, chef-driven kitchens. This has turned out to be true, although even some chains have been seriously affected. In our major cities, the biggest problem has been the collapse of commercial real estate as employees continue to work from home. Expense account dining, the backbone of upscale establishments, is in a state of hibernation.
We’re clearly moving toward a new normal. While no one knows exactly what it is, the outlines are starting to take shape. There has been (and probably will continue to be) a profound shift in what customers want, need and expect out of the restaurant experience. A spectacular evening used to be dinner at The French Laundry or Daniel; now it’s takeout and wine at home by candlelight. It will take years for entrepreneurs to realize this, and some may never do so.
Before you succumb to despair, consider some background: the fine dining culture in this country is very new. As recently as 50 or 60 years ago, there were only a handful of serious restaurants in cities such as New York, Chicago and L.A. Everything else was more or less a diner (fast food was just starting to take hold at the time). These places were mostly French, and they catered to a wealthy clientele. The average person didn’t go to restaurants, either because they couldn’t afford it or didn’t have the background to appreciate it.
The economic boom of the 1980s and 1990s, coupled with phenomena such as the Food Network, created an explosion in U.S. dining. The trendiest dishes in our dining rooms today—tacos, pork belly, chicken wings—would have been ridiculed 50 years ago as peasant food. All this seems to point to the conclusion that the gastropub will survive, but the Michelin three-star wannabe probably won’t. In truth, even the real Michelin three-stars aren’t profitable, and their chefs have been opening casual restaurants to turn a profit.
Here’s the reality: our definition of gastronomy is changing, just as our standards in music, art and literature transform over time. There may seem to be a huge gulf between Benny Goodman and Def Leppard, but the difference is only a generation or two. Everything changes, and the old guard will almost always feel resentful: just think back to the discussions you had about music with your parents when you were a teenager.
During the pandemic lockdowns, many of us rediscovered cooking. We did so in the best possible way: rather than throw dinner together to meet a timetable, we began baking bread, reducing sauces, and composing menus with thought and care. Things could really be worse: for those who view food as a vehicle for creativity and renewal, it’s heartening to realize that you don’t always have to go out. The most interesting new kitchen in town may be the one in your house.
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture, as well as three novels. His latest release, Impeachment, is now available on Amazon.