David Chang is in mourning. And when you gaze upon the fine-dining apocalypse, it’s easy to understand why.
His cozy little restaurant Momofuku Ssam Bar helped redefine the idea of fine dining in the mid-aughts, becoming one of the rare instances of that cliche actually ringing true. It “rewrote the rules by which critically acclaimed restaurants were supposed to operate,” New York Times critic Pete Wells noted in a glowing 2017 review.
Part of that was the unpredictable Asian cooking, consistently wrought with a dash of precision and luxury (a signature item: steamed bun with caviar and bacon-ranch dressing). The other part was a rollicking dining room that felt almost aggressively counter to the standards of what a fine-dining restaurant should be.
Now, though, Ssam Bar is no more, victim of the pandemic and failed negotiations with a landlord — it’s folding into a nearby location. Fellow NYC restaurant Momofuku Nishi is closing outright, as is an outpost in D.C. All this, despite a billionaire investor and one of the brightest brands in the business.
And Chang’s one of the lucky ones. While some states are reopening restaurants to dine-in guests, the vast majority of restaurants, especially high-end spots that focus on luxurious service and multi-hour experiences, are shuttering for good. The victims range from juggernauts like Wolfgang Puck to younger chefs like L.A.’s Eric Bost, whose highly anticipated tasting-menu restaurant Auburn closed last month (L.A. Times critic Bill Addison deemed it the “most exhilarating” restaurant he experienced in 2019). Along those lines, McCrady’s in Charleston, where influential Southern chef Sean Brock made his name, is done as a result of its intimate dining room being too small to handle social-distancing rules.
Chef Daniel Humm doesn’t know whether his three-Michelin-star Eleven Madison Park will reopen. Neither does Danny Meyer, who has locked up nearly all of his NYC empire, including the legendary Gramercy Tavern. Industry data shows that restaurants built on long meals and hospitality, as well as high sales of marked-up alcohol, aren’t going to weather the economic storm well. Fine dining is the only niche in the restaurant business to be lagging behind in transitioning to carryout; the segment also has the most closures. Selling casual food and groceries isn’t much of a guaranteed way out, either.
What then will fine dining look like once the pandemic dies down? And does it even matter what happens to the industry, given the bigger picture and damage at hand?
Humm doesn’t know, and he’s supposed to be one of the great success stories in the field. For him, the existential questions loom as large as the pragmatic ones: “The world is changing very quickly. I don’t know if it will ever be the same. I don’t know what fine dining means. I don’t know what luxury means. Our restaurants rely on a lot of travelers coming from around the world, but are we going to be traveling in six months?” he ponders in a Fast Company interview.
Meanwhile, some establishments are forging ahead with plans to get back to business as usual, with little in the way of best practices to consult. The three-Michelin-star Inn at Little Washington in Virginia is opening back up with cute masks featuring Marilyn Monroe and George Washington. As restaurant policy, they won’t even wear a mask if a customer feels uncomfortable. “People need to get out, obviously, and they don’t want to walk into an atmosphere that increases their anxiety,” chef Patrick O’Connell told the New York Times.
In Hong Kong, there are masks, plexiglass screens and temperature checks at the door; in Atlanta, hygienic service means hand sanitizer at every table and food brought on silver plates with domed lids to prevent exposure. Mediamatic Eten, situated on Amsterdam’s waterfront, is introducing clear “biomes” shaped like a tiny home for two, with waiters bringing courses on the ends of beautiful wood trays.
But this is a daydream for most restaurants, which operate on extremely tight margins and can normally be crushed by a few bad months, let alone a years-long pandemic. René Redzepi, the brilliant Dane behind Noma in Copenhagen, seems resigned to even giving a shit about fine dining at all. He worries for ambitious young chefs, observing that “big groups” with more cash and industry weight will win out instead. And his mind turns not to the potential customers shelling out $400 for dinner, but the people who bring him all those ingredients in the first place.
“We need to use this opportunity to make things better. The price of food will increase in future, but we need to support local farmers and local growers. People may have less money, but what we have realized in this crisis is the people who are most valuable in our society aren’t those we might think of but rather those working in health care or those cleaning our streets. We may need to consume differently,” he said on Instagram Live.
In the big picture, it hardly feels like the fine-dining apocalypse matters at all — when these places have served as hubs of privilege for so long, the eyerolls come naturally. But I’d also argue that the death of so many high-end restaurants is a referendum on the damage being sown across the hospitality industry as a whole. We’re watching a mass eradication of human creativity and talent, with a hoard of young cooks left without the right venue in which to hone their most precise skills. This kind of ambition still ought to matter. You have to be a little crazy to open a place like Alinea or Atelier Crenn. You have to do it in spite of the profit not being there.
I don’t know when the next time I’ll be able to, or even just want to, sit down at a restaurant for four hours while meandering through a 12-course menu. I don’t know when it’ll feel right. It’s an act that’s punctuated some of my most memorable birthdays and life transitions; few things feel as exciting as the prospect of a long, unpredictable meal at the hands of a kitchen firing on all cylinders. There is beauty in excellence, and excellence in cuisine is as influential as any other force in this vast and bizarre world. I’ll miss it in the same way I miss sports: Because it’s fun to see what people can achieve.
The shutters will continue to fall as the pandemic stretches on, even with re-openings unfolding. For now, I look to the optimistic early successes as signs that a compromise is possible — places like L.A.’s Vespertine, an experimental restaurant where the food barely resembles food and a dinner for two can cost $1,000. It was one of the late Jonathan Gold’s favorite establishments, led by a hardcore young chef not known for his compromises, Jordan Kahn.
Yet amid COVID, it’s decided to serve a tasting menu built to be enjoyed at home. The menus constantly change, each featuring a theme as focused and specific as the menu that Kahn served before the quarantine came down. Lately, Vespertine has offered a multi-course journey into the Yucatan featuring mole and psychedelic flowers, as well as a revisiting of Kahn’s time cooking with Thomas Keller at the famous French Laundry in Napa.
“When guests email to say it’s felt like a surprise — made them think or it made them giggle — or made for a momentary escape, I’ve been like, Okay, we’re on the right path, because a place like Vespertine is meant to be escapist,” Kahn told the L.A. Times.
Kahn hasn’t furloughed a single employee, keeping them all at their previous pay rates. It’s a dream outcome that most restaurateurs and chefs won’t taste. But it gives me solace that there are ways to preserve a misunderstood but deeply artful corner of food culture, while still building a future more suited to our economic unknowns.