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Is the coronavirus the end for fancy restaurants — and the start of a new dining era?

Innovative chefs and their establishments shape the way we eat, drink, produce and think about food today. It's unclear what happens if that's gone.
Image: Fine Dining
Professional chef adding a sprig of watercress on top of a slow cooked chicken breast served on a bed of bulgur risotto.ClarkandCompany / Getty Images

For an indicator of just how very bad things are in the restaurant business, consider the spectacle at the White House on Monday. Thomas Keller, an illustrious chef who happens to own some of the most expensive restaurants in the world, was among 10 hospitality industry chiefs representing every part of American dining — from Burger King to mom and pop joints to other Michelin Three Stars — seated with the entire Trump Brain Trust: President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, the president’s son-in-law and special adviser Jared Kushner and presidential daughter Ivanka Trump, among others.

At one point, Keller began to speak, gently, to the president, explaining how the flavor of the butter Keller sources from a solitary Vermont farmer with eight cows changes from season to season. “In the spring when the … [cows] are grazing on grass, the butter is a beautiful orange hue,” he said. It is unclear what outcome Keller was trying to get with Trump; maybe he thought the idea of Per Se running out of exquisitely-flavored butter would galvanize Trump into action for the nationwide crisis of small family farms facing economic collapse as American restaurants lie dying.

In any case, Trump was polite but seemed fairly unmoved.

It was hard not to see that Keller and his cohort of very powerful chef/executives, with their studied calm, smiling faces, are pretty much desperate. It is fair to guess that these men — and they were all men — who had clawed their way to the top of the restaurant industry do not usually suffer fools with smiles, or even use their inside voices that much. But they were relaxed and friendly as they each explained that America’s restaurants really, really need smarter federal assistance (and lots more federal money) right now because the industry — and the many millions of jobs it represents and supports — are facing catastrophe.

That restaurants are among the businesses economically hardest hit by COVID-19 has been clear from the beginning of the pandemic. The virus exploits our weak spots: We are highly social creatures who crave gathering together to dine and drink and talk. However, the universal appetite for being together is considerably shaken after months of watching wall-to-wall news coverage of COVID-19’s brutal symptoms, as well as the hideous, lonely deaths it inflicts.

And when it comes to going out to eat, it is hard to un-see videos like the terrifying black light experiment filmed by NHK, which show one infected person at a restaurant rapidly, easily and efficiently infecting the other diners and servers with SARS-CoV-2.

For the people who run and own restaurants now contemplating how to mitigate the dangers inherent in running a dine-in restaurant in the midst of a pandemic of a highly contagious, fatal respiratory disease can, as David Chang said, make your brain bleed. There’s both not enough and too much information: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines are so inadequate that many states, The James Beard Institute, individual restaurants and even McDonald's are coming out with their own extensive recommendations for re-opening safely. More helpfully, some of the smartest minds in the industry, such as Chang and Tom Colicchio, have started a public dialogue about how dine-in restaurants need to change and evolve if they are going to survive this period of time.

And if there is any strong takeaway from Monday’s White House meeting, it seems to be that the big guys will be able to do just that. The Paneras and other chains who had, pre-pandemic, robust takeout and delivery business are apparently thriving. However, sadly, and inevitably, many fine dining restaurants that are trying to pivot to takeout and delivery report they are losing money — a lot of it.

And some of the chef-owners who run the most exclusive, most expensive and often most innovative restaurants in the country are starting to sound like they don’t see how they will survive. In Seattle, the pre-pandemic home to one of the country’s most adventurous, high-end restaurant scenes, some of the city’s most exciting new boîtes were built around intimate dining experiences — places that were designed to be small at which guests sit at “chef’s counters” during a few seatings per night. There is no way to effectively sanitize a dining experience that is about physical intimacy and have it remain even vaguely similar.

And really, the question has to be asked: Why try?

As Georgia-based chef Hugh Acheson said to a New York Times reporter: “There is no fancy meal right now that is worth my people’s health and the health of other people who come into a restaurant.”

When surveying the wreckage of the COVID-19 economy, let alone thinking about the thousands of people who now spend hours each week waiting in line at food banks, it’s hard to feel too badly about the existential threat facing the finest, most exclusive restaurants in the country. It’s hard to feel too sorry for the kind of places that can only exist in or near cities that have great wealth, and that have months-long waiting lists and dinners that costs as much as the average American worker earns in a week.

Yet, in the same way that a relatively tiny haute couture scene exerts an outsize influence on the global clothing industry, these exclusive, obnoxiously expensive restaurants are often the realized dreams of some of the most gifted, artistic, ambitious, hard-working Americans who come from all social classes. These restaurants and their chefs contribute enormously to the way Americans think, eat, drink, produce food and interact with one another and our environment. And it seems increasingly likely that many, if not all of them, will not return to business after COVID-19.

Already, there are some who are welcoming the end of high-end dining and feel that the death of “foodie” culture will lead to a better, less snobbish way of thinking about and eating food. History, however, is not encouraging on this point: During Prohibition, the restaurant industry collapsed when the high profit margins from alcohol sales disappeared. With restaurants shuttered, diners, cafeterias and soda fountains popped up all over the country serving fast food — or, as the economist Tyler Cowen has pointed out, food that is pleasing to children: sweet, bland, filling. It was comfort food.

Maybe comfort food is what we need right now, to nourish our psyches more than our bodies as we prepare for the upcoming months in a globally persistent pandemic environment. And maybe even the most celebrated chefs know it. For instance, now that Denmark is starting to ease its lockdown restrictions, René Redzepi, one of the most celebrated and gastronomically adventurous chefs in the world, has announced he is reopening Noma, his Copenhagen restaurant/foodie Valhalla … as a burger joint. Velbekomme!