Restaurateurs have been on a rollercoaster of closing and reopening over the last few months, playing musical chairs in dining rooms as circumstances continue to shift.
Take chef Amy Brandwein’s Centrolina. Located in Washington, D.C., the Italian eatery closed its doors when the pandemic hit in March, reopened in late May for a weekend of patio dining, closed again the following week due to protests against racism and police brutality, and then opened again for more patio dining a week later.
The secret to reopening amid shaky circumstances—for Centrolina as well as other restaurants—has been the ticketed or reservations-only prix fixe meal. There are several key perks to this strategy: Prix fixe menus can be specially drawn up to fit the availability of both staff and ingredients at any given moment. The reservations or tickets are fully paid for ahead of time online, thus limiting staff-guest interactions and allowing concepts to gauge revenues ahead of time. Restaurants are able to control how many diners are seated at any given time by making only a select number of tickets or reservations availabl. Guests also receive a long-awaited respite from at-home cooking with an experience that feels exclusive and intimate.
As the full-service industry grapples with finding the line between social distancing and bringing back socially starved diners, FSR spoke with three restaurateurs and chefs about this golden ticket approach to reopening.
Chef & Owner, Elvie’s | Jackson, Mississippi
The tasting menu at Elvie’s has really been an idea since the beginning. Now that we’re slowly reopening our dining room and adhering to health and safety guidelines—like seating at 50 percent capacity and reconfiguring our dining room to encourage social distancing—we thought now would be a great time to give it a shot.
People haven’t been out to a restaurant in months, so we wanted to offer a really unique experience for our guests. We want the tasting menu to reflect the changing season and what we’re currently sourcing from local farmers, so guests can expect the menu to change regularly. We’ve only kept one dish the same, and that’s the first dish on the menu: a farm egg with truffled cream and smoked pork cracklins served inside the egg shell.
The price, $60 dollars, is actually a little above our average check per person. At 50 percent capacity, we needed to raise the price from a business standpoint but also to make it reflective of the experience guests are getting with the tasting menu.
I want our guests to experience a unique meal that they can only get from Elvie’s in a safe dining environment. It’s fun to do a six- to seven-course meal because we can have a dish or two that is a little different than what people expect, and if they don’t really love it, they have five other courses to enjoy.
Owner, TJ’s Seafood Market | Dallas
Before we reopened to the public, we hosted ticketed, seated wine dinners as a way to get our chops back. People don’t realize the many different elements that have to come together in fine dining, and we had to get our rhythm back.
We were able to guarantee our staff that they wouldn’t come back to an empty dining room with no tips because everything was pre-sold. The dinners were also fun for our customers; they were like friends-and-family “we missed you” events.
We did this for just a weekend, then shut down again and took notes on what worked. It allowed us to find the things we hadn’t thought about. For instance, if someone wants cracked black pepper on their salad, we don’t want to lean over their shoulder anymore, so we have to crack the pepper ahead of time and put it in a ramekin on the table.
The meal tickets were $99, which included three courses, three wines, and gratuity. This was a bit of a special price. Most people don’t have three glasses of wine with dinner. We probably could have charged $150 for this in normal times, but the bottom line is that we’re in a recession. Not only do restaurateurs have to figure out how to keep this process safe, we also have to remember that people and their pocketbooks are hurting and they need a damn good value.
Chef & Owner, Centrolina | Washington, D.C.
We reopened for patio dining with a prix fixe menu that is available online for advance order through Tock. So customers essentially place their order and choose their menu in advance; there are four courses with two options for each course.
All the transactions are rolled up into that online order. Guests can supplement their order at the time of dining if they want, but the idea is to take out as many steps of service as possible. I expect to do this same format even when we roll into the regular dining scenario.
It’s three courses for $52. Guests can select an antipasti, a pasta, and a dessert, and then an extra course is offered. If you’d like to add an entrée, you can for around $30 to $38. Our typical price per diner is around $50 to $60. This is a little on the low side because we want to be sensitive to the times. The menu is compiled of seasonal ingredients, things that I think are good for this type of weather. We change the menu every week.
People have been cooking a lot at home and that’s great, but they miss having an experience. I think they are looking to stay as long as they can and enjoy it.