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A spread of six artfully plated dishes and three drinks laid out on a table.
In the East Village, modern Korean restaurant Soogil converted to a six-course tasting menu early on in the pandemic.
Michael Tulipan/Soogil

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Once-Stodgy Tasting Menus Are Keeping Neighborhood Restaurants Afloat

The set menu has been key to surviving another pandemic winter for some NYC restaurants

Erika Adams is the editor of Eater Boston.

It took staggering financial losses for Woodside’s Casa del Chef Bistro chef and owner Alfonso Zhicay to throw up his hands, scrap his a la carte menu, and debut a tasting menu in January. Customer traffic had nosedived, COVID cases were spiking due to the omicron variant spread, and Zhicay found himself throwing out pricey, unsold scallops while staring down a 90 percent decrease in sales in November and December. “We were losing money every night,” Zhicay says.

Not every restaurateur faced the brink of closure like Zhicay before deciding to toss their a la carte menus, but many were aching to eliminate a bevy of variables affecting their dinner services and bottom line. Neighborhood spots like Lower East Side Italian restaurant Forsythia, Olmsted in Prospect Heights, and Casa del Chef Bistro in Woodside are now finding a measure of relief in tasting and prix fixe menus, a more rigid dinner format often associated with costly fine dining meals. Some owners say that while the change hasn’t necessarily boosted sales, there are other upsides: They’ve been able to cut down on food waste, better handle staffing shortages, and find more space for creativity in their day-to-day work.

At hip pasta spot Forsythia, owner Jacob Siwak allows diners to choose a handful of menu options for each course — “I don’t want to serve someone something that they don’t like,” Siwak says — but the kitchen can better prepare for unpredictable demands and cut down on food waste with a prix fixe menu. In the former a la carte format, the 45-seat restaurant would regularly see a dish spike in popularity one night only to plummet the next, after the team had already spent time prepping extra orders in anticipation of another sell-out night. The prix fixe menu decreased the need for that guesswork and allows the team to prepare more efficiently for each night. “We have more time to prepare for new dishes instead of working on the ones we already have,” Siwak says.

A man reaches for glassware while standing behind a bar set with plates and wine glasses for dinner service.
Forsythia’s service director George Bernard behind the bar at the restaurant.
Madeline Mark/Forsythia

While Forsythia still employs the same amount of 14 to 15 people, Siwak says that the restaurant is better able to handle last-minute staffing shortages with the prix fixe menus because the kitchen work has stabilized, and servers don’t have to spend as much time walking diners through the menu. At Casa del Chef Bistro, Zhicay can now run the restaurant with four employees instead of six on busier weekend nights.

Zhicay also found that transitioning to a tasting menu allowed more space for creativity in his work. Casa del Chef Bistro’s current menu changes on a weekly basis depending on what Zhicay finds at farmers markets and from the restaurant’s purveyors, and with a maximum of six dishes, he has more time to fine tune each plate. Soogil Lim, the chef and owner behind Soogil in the East Village, saw similar benefits. Employees were mastering skills more quickly with a smaller menu, and he’s been able to hone dishes like a foie gras mousse and fig ice cream dessert topped with dalgona candy. “I can immerse and challenge myself to change these dishes for every menu, which allows me to grow,” Lim says in an email.

A dining room with light wooden tables and a multi-orb light fixture hanging above.
Inside Soogil.
Michael Tulipan/Soogil

Many braced for a tasting menu to spark backlash among their diners due to the set prices and set food options. Forsythia’s Siwak purposefully designed the restaurant’s prix fixe menu with two prices — a $75 five-course option in the dining room and a $40 three-course option at the bar — to cater to the two main types of diners at his restaurant: younger diners who swing by for a drink and a bite as one of several stops of their night, and older customers who treat dinner at the restaurant as their main event of the evening, he says. The restaurant’s $40 menu has been key to heading off complaints from those who would pass on the pricier dining room option.

Some customers don’t mind spending more. Soogil turned to a tasting menu in July 2020 when the city’s restaurants were navigating outdoor-only dining. He started out with a sub-$100 tasting menu — it has since increased to $115 for six courses due to rising costs — and anticipated some blowback due to the hike, but was surprised to find customers’ receptions were “completely opposite,” Lim says. According to Zhicay, Casa del Chef Bistro’s $69, six-course tasting menu has proven to be more popular than the abbreviated $49 three-course menu.

A spoon drizzles sauce on a short rib sitting on a white plate with orange vegetables arranged alongside.
Short rib with Jerusalem artichokes, a dish on Zhicay’s tasting menu.
Casa Del Chef Bistro

Still, diners have fewer choices at these reliable neighborhood spots when it comes to deciding how much to spend on dinner. At Olmsted, Eater critic Ryan Sutton notes in a favorable review of the restaurant’s new tasting menu that dinner can now easily run $150 after accounting for food, drinks, tax, and tip.

The tasting menus have brought about enough positive changes that some restaurants like Casa del Chef Bistro and Soogil have vowed to never go back to an a la carte setting. Zhicay’s sales have rebounded by 60 percent as compared to the dire situation at the end of last year, he says. According to Lim, tasting menu sales have gradually increased at Soogil to the point where the restaurant is now generating 90 percent of its 2019 revenues.

Others are still testing the waters. Baxtrom has stated that Olmsted’s switch is a temporary one over the next couple of slow winter months. Forsythia is still gauging reactions, Siwak says, but he’s been pleased with the initial response from both customers and staff.

“What I’m hoping for is more consistency,” Siwak says. “Not as high of peaks and not as low of valleys.”

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