It must be stated, unequivocally, that this pandemic has been cataclysmic for the restaurant industry. Millions of jobs have been lost. Countless chefs and owners have closed their well-worn kitchens; those who have held on have watched revenue drop dramatically.
And yet — could anything productive come out of this? Any new operation methods, products, or habits? I hope so. While the past few months have been incredibly difficult, restaurants have veered from “business-as-usual” and embraced strategies that could pave the way for a more innovative dining scene. Here are 5 things I hope we can hold onto once a vaccine emerges, and we are finally dining out in a post-pandemic world.
1. Restaurants as libraries, cooking classes, wine clubs, and more
The past few months have emphasized that, for many of us, restaurants are just as much community spaces as they are a place to eat and drink. I’ve missed gathering with friends after work for cocktails and meeting my siblings for our monthly brunch date. Restaurants have missed diners, too. In the wake of the pandemic, chefs at Brato, MIDA, Mei Mei, and a slew of other spots have come into our homes for Zoom cooking classes and wine dinners. FRANK launched a wine club, while also producing its own signature barbecue sauce, mustard, jam, preserves, charcuterie, ice cream, and sweet barbecue chips — a little slice of the Beverly restaurant that we can take home. In response to the recent protests and Black Live Matter movement, Pammy’s in Cambridge started an anti-racist library, lending and accepting books that aim to foster constructive conversation. And coming soon to Bow Market in Somerville is Wild Child, a book and wine club from the folks at wine bar Rebel Rebel, with in-store browsing and sipping available once it opens. It’s all in an effort to help us connect again, at a time when sharing meals with friends or meeting strangers at a bar seems like a near-impossible feat — and it’s an effort I hope continues even after we have a vaccine.
2. Playful pop-ups
Pop-ups, of course, are nothing new. But restaurants either pivoting to or adding casual pop-up concepts in the last few months have resulted in some incredibly creative ideas. Fine dining Back Bay restaurant UNI launched a clam shack in early July, serving fried clams, lobster rolls, and onion strings. Over in Somerville, the owners of Hot Box and Mike & Patty’s teamed up with chef Tim Maslow to debut Seis Pies, a burrito pop-up that is now available daily at Hot Box for takeout and delivery. For soft serve, head on over to the Starlite Snack Shack from Trina’s Starlite Lounge. Their menu is as feel-good as it’s going to get this summer: Hot dogs, burgers, onion rings, and creamy soft serve swirled into house made cones. In the Seaport, Chickadee‘s new outdoor pop-up bar, Mayday!, serves strawberry daiquiris and piña coladas on the promenade next to the Innovation and Design Building. If ever there was a time when we needed soft serve and fried clams and piña coladas, this is it.
3. A prolonged and expansive patio season
It’s true: Patio season will not last forever. Come winter, restaurants that embraced the city’s expedited process for obtaining a patio permit will undoubtedly see yet another drop in sales as dining outside becomes impossible. But walking around Boston right now is an optimistic reminder that we can become an al fresco town if we want to (as long as we don’t follow the North End’s “Rules? What rules?” example). Making patios attainable for most restaurants has transformed entire streets and neighborhoods into scenes resembling so many other global metropolises — which is thoroughly needed, since we’re not going to be jetting off to the other side of the world for a while. Since dining establishments were allowed to spill out onto the street at the onset of Phase 2, my experiences on makeshift patios have been overwhelmingly pleasant, whether in an alley or a converted parking lot or a parklet. Let’s hope Boston continues to grow as a patio haven, for as long as the weather — and city officials — allows it to.
4. Cocktail mixers and boozy beverages to go
This perk is a new one. On Monday, Governor Baker finally signed a bill allowing liquor license-carrying restaurants and bars to sell cocktails to go (with limits, of course — two per person, along with the purchase of food). Bars are ready for it: The Quiet Few will launch frozen negronis and margaritas on Friday, boozy granitas are currently available for takeout at GreCo Seaport, and Vincent’s Grocery at Café du Pays in Cambridge now sells palomas and Aperol spritzes in compostable, 12-ounce cups. The catch? The law is only in effect until the state of emergency lifts. But a girl can dream, and if all goes well we might have the opportunity to order to-go cocktails from now until eternity. I’d also settle for cocktail mixers becoming a permanent fixture — I’ve been a frequent customer of Blossom Bar’s Blossom mixers since the pandemic started (as of this week, the Brookline bar is also selling cocktail “cartridges” for takeout at $10 each). Do I still want to sit at a bar, languidly perusing the drink menu until ordering something that I know I might never be able to recreate? Absolutely. But I’ve also found real pleasure in enjoying the talents of our city’s bartenders at home — sipping a passionfruit-infused Gloria from Blossom Bar out on the front stoop, mask-free and all. If we could exist in a world that offered all of the above — drinking at a bar, ordering a mixer, taking home a full-fledged cocktail — I think everyone might win.
5. Tech-friendly dining
“Do you have a smartphone?”
On a quick trip to Provincetown in June, I was asked about my phone’s status at every coffee shop, restaurant, and bar I stopped to look at. Since reopening in Phase 2, QR codes have become de rigeur for accessing an establishment’s menu — a practical, touchless solution that I had rarely encountered pre-pandemic and am now fully on board with. Aside from being able to avoid a physical menu that might have missed a wipe-down, accessing menus via QR codes reduces paper waste, particularly for restaurants with an ever-changing food and drink lineup that requires a daily print out. Of course, owning a smartphone is a privilege that some diners can’t afford, and potentially wards off prospective patrons who might not have one. The solution, I think: Have a physical menu on hand, either in printed or chalkboard form, for those who want one, while continuing to encourage diners to embrace the tech-driven method of browsing a menu via QR code.
More than QR codes, though, is the embrace of online ordering as a whole. For dedicated planners, online ordering is a godsend. For restaurants, it can help streamline their business.
“The bigger change for us has been moving our menu and payment online,” Aaron Cohen, owner of Gracie’s Ice Cream in Somerville, shared. “It’s made a real and noticeable difference to us that customers can order whenever they want and then come pick up during our set hours. In the past, we’d send out a newsletter or Instagram post with a new or special flavor in the morning, and then customers would have to wait until we opened to buy it. Now they can order in the middle of the night, or whenever they see the post.”
Post-pandemic, online ordering shouldn’t take the place of going out and dining at your favorite restaurant. But I think it does continue to give us options that will support our local establishments on the road to recovery. And support is something everyone is going to need for a long, long time.
What do you hope remains as part of the dining out experience after the pandemic? Let us know in the comments below!
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