In the three months since the start of the mandated COVID-19 shutdown, the virus has disproportionately impacted communities of color and older people, but when it comes to the way restaurants do business, the novel coronavirus has leveled the playing field. From neighborhood sandwich shops to white tablecloth Michelin-starred temples of fine dining, all restaurants were forced to become takeout operations or close.
While most people know what regular food delivery looks like, fine dining restaurants have typically eschewed takeout, as the food doesn’t lend itself easily to the format, and elaborate service can be used to justify higher prices. While the Michelin guide has been criticized for a lack of inclusivity, many still consider it the standard-bearer of fine dining and rely on it for success. The tourist traffic that the guide funnels into starred restaurants sometimes accounts for almost half of all business. But in a year without travel, the anonymous inspectors that fan out across the globe and awards stars based on whether a restaurant is “worthy of a detour” now have the challenge of assessing food that itself takes a detour, on a delivery worker’s bike to the customer.
“In a Michelin-starred restaurant, somebody walks in that front door in a normal service, there’s a lovely table setting, the host to greet you, there’s a bartender, there’s bottles everywhere, there’s music, there’s fine art on the wall. These are all the things that we use to make a first impression,” said Wallse general manager Michael Dolinski. “At home, we are stripped of that.”
Among the city’s 76 Michelin-starred restaurants, four — Gotham Bar and Grill, Nix, Jewel Bako, and Ukiyo — have already permanently shuttered during the pandemic, and 35 have reopened for some form of takeout and/or delivery, most of them for the very first time. Whether it was to drum up enough revenue to pay rent, or to just keep the brand in the conversation, these darlings of the fine dining world have had to adapt to stay in business during the shutdown. Sometimes that meant importing fancy takeout containers that are as novel as the coronavirus itself. Other restaurants have had to change the type of food that they served altogether.
As the year wears on, and a lot of these high-end restaurants remain delivery operations, the question turns to how Michelin will inspect them for next year’s stars. French chef Daniel Boulud, who runs the two-starred Daniel on the Upper East Side, has an idea.
“I’m sure that they’re going to come up with a takeout classification,” he said.
Chef Emma Bengtsson’s two-starred Nordic restaurant has a variety of takeout and delivery options, but the flagship offering is the $115 Smörgåsbord, which includes gravlax, three types of herring treatments, sausage, meatballs, egg salad, and shrimp on toast, in more takeout containers than you’ve ever seen in your life for a single order.
Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare
Cesar Ramirez’s “table,” tucked into the back of a gourmet supermarket in Midtown West, was the first of the city’s three-Michelin starred restaurants to offer takeout. Even with the risk of dishes falling apart in transit, the chef integrates luxury ingredients like morels, foie gras, and black truffles into his offerings, alongside a sheet of instructions for how long to reheat each item in the microwave.
The Mexican restaurant run by TJ Steele in Gowanus, Brooklyn delivers moles, quesadillas, and even full El Búho mezcal tasting flights, packaged separately in sauce containers.
Daniel Boulud has advantages over many of his contemporaries: He owns the space that his two-star restaurant is in, and his Feast & Fetes catering company has his staff well-prepared for the rigors of producing food that goes for a ride. The menu ranges from classics like Daniel’s Beef Duo of short ribs and filet mignon, to mac and cheese for kids, and are delivered in containers are made of a biodegradable sugarcane. “This is not about trying to be Hermès or Gucci and having fancy packaging,” said Boulud. “It’s about having good food in packaging that is responsible.”
The Four Horsemen
The Williamsburg, Brooklyn wine bar owned in part by LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy has tried it all during quarantine: takeout food, wine shop, and now walk-up window for pantry items. But its most distinctive products are the 500ml wine pouches, served Capri-Sun style.
Jeju Noodle Bar
The first stateside Michelin-starred noodle joint has mostly avoided sending Douglas Kim’s delicate Korean ramyun out for delivery due to an inability to control the transit time. Instead, they’ve switched to five-course tasting menus that rotate weekly.
Kajitsu, Hirohisa, Odo
Japanese restaurants like Kajitsu, Hirohisa, and Odo have splurged on hinoki wood boxes that are 15 to 20 times the price of regular plastic takeout containers and are specially imported from Japan. Pricier omakase spreads at Hirohisa and bozushi at Odo are presented in cedar and bamboo boxes that cost even more. “This is for branding. I use the best fish, so I also need to use the best containers,” said Hirohisa Hayashi, head chef and owner of his eponymous restaurant. “I don’t want to use something cheaper just to make a little more money.”
The East Village sushi restaurant helmed by Nobuyuki Shikanai still serves the usual rolls, nigiri, and chirashi options for takeout and delivery, but it has also opened up its Second Avenue storefront, converting it into a walk up seafood counter that sells oysters and sashimi-grade fish.
Masayoshi Takayama’s three-starred temple to raw fish is the most expensive restaurant in the United States, and the takeout version’s price point is in the same area code: $800 for a temaki hand roll box that feeds four. Only 20 are sold each week, and there is a waiting list.
Polo Dobkin’s New American restaurant in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn has converted into a country store, with baskets of fruit, a wine section, and a selection of hand sanitizer, paper towels, disinfecting wipes, and gloves. The bulk of his regular menu is also available to go. “I’m happy sticking with delivery and takeout for as long as we need to,” said Dobkin.
The one star bistro run by Nico Russell in Prospect Heights began selling pantry boxes under the Boxalis brand when the lockdown started, and eventually added everything-you-need kits for salads, brunch and date night.
To adapt to the new rules during the pandemic, the iconic steakhouse changed up many of its old-school rules: For the first time in 133 years, it switched from cash-only to credit cards, signed up for Caviar deliveries, and allowed the lunchtime-only burger to be ordered around the clock. It is now their most popular item.
Eleven Madison Park
Homestyle tofu with chinese broccoli produced in the kitchen of the three-starred Eleven Madison Park. Since the start of the lockdown, Daniel Humm’s restaurant has served as a commissary kitchen in partnership with Rethink Food, a non-profit that utilizes excess overstock food that would otherwise get dumped and turns it into meals for the hungry New Yorkers and first responders. This particular dish was delivered to SUNY Downstate Hospital, and was not available for sale. Sometimes all the money in the world can’t get you into these elite restaurants.