As headline-grabbing as these moves have been in 2020, plenty of high-end chefs have dipped more than a toe in the waters of fast-casual dining over the years.
Daniel Boulud crystallised the fancy burger trend nearly 20 years ago with the db burger at db Bistro Moderne, and Tom Colicchio spun the sandwich concept ’Wichcraft off Craft not long after. Rockpool’s Neil Perry has had a burger chain for years, and saw his steakhouse offshoot, Rockpool Bar & Grill, outlive the original Rockpool fine diner. After Christian Puglisi closes Relae at the end of 2020, it’ll be his pizzeria, Bæst, vermouth bar, Rudo, and bakery, Mirabelle, flying his flag in Copenhagen.
It’s keeping values front-and-centre that makes the difference, in or out of a pandemic. The product and the channels might vary, as might the level of fanciness, but what the chef and restaurant are about can stay true. At Nobelhart & Schmutzig, they’re still “vocally local” about their Berlin, whether that idea is expressed on the table or in a jar. Atsushi Tanaka might have spent part of 2020 packing chirashizushi into boxes at Restaurant AT, but he still did it with typical flair, and while ASAP offered a Hawaiian pizza along with all the green garlic and sheep ricotta, it was a Hawaiian made with pickled Scotch bonnet peppers, grilled pineapple and guanciale.
But James Lowe, chef and co-owner of Lyle’s and Flor, cautions against reading too much into the current situation. “People have had to adapt to a more mainstream offer because everyone’s in survival mode,” he says. “When we’re not in survival mode people will switch up the offerings again because they can do.” The market, he says, has not been fundamentally altered.
Photo courtesy of Ben Shewry
“I feel like every year for 15 years, fine dining has been pronounced dead, but it’s not going anywhere,” says Ben Shewry, chef and owner of Attica. “I didn’t set out to open a fine-dining restaurant, but through ambition and striving and a bit of ego, I’ve ended up here, and I think you’re always going to have that.”
Noma’s burger bar wound down over the summer and its regular carte returned. Menus for its game season, kicking off 13 October, sell for 2800DKK a head (about €380 or $445 USD). Flor has packed away the pizzas, and Daniel Boulud, the man who coined the term ‘fine eating’, is looking to revive the gilded Le Pavillon brand in Manhattan. Thomas Keller has been doing burgers and half-bottles at the Ad Hoc space, but has also introduced a new indoor-dining menu rich in caviar and truffles at The French Laundry at $850 a head.
But if 2020 hasn’t shifted a paradigm in dining, says Lowe, it still gave many operators a taste of doing things differently, and showed them different ways of living their lives. ASAP Pizza might be closed for the moment, but now that he has proof of concept, Lowe says a permanent site is a logical next step. “We know what the turnover is, we know it can work in lockdown. It’s not going to die.” Over in Berlin, Billy Wagner says the online shop and selling dishes outside the restaurant, perhaps for Christmas, New Year and other special occasions, is something that will remain part of the Nobelhart & Schmutzig business model. Rene Redzepi, who says he sold 65,000 burgers this year, is considering slotting another less casual season into the Noma calendar for 2021. “Something fun.”