Coronavirus has Atlanta restaurateurs rethinking menus

Small plates, chef’s counters pose problems for dining during pandemic
Select offerings of nigiri make up the core of the honkaku omakase experience at Sushi Hayakawa.

Select offerings of nigiri make up the core of the honkaku omakase experience at Sushi Hayakawa.

As Georgia restaurants continue to reopen for dining, owners are grappling with more than face masks, limited seating capacities and other state-mandated guidelines for operating during the coronavirus pandemic. To mitigate the spread of the virus and build customer confidence for dining out, some Atlanta restaurant owners and chefs are retrofitting menus to accommodate a new era in dining.

Plenty of popular Atlanta restaurants have a core menu that revolves around small plates. Diners gravitate toward snack-sized appetizers because they are cheaper than entrees, require less commitment than a full-sized serving, and offer a way to sample a variety of menu items. But small plates are also often intended for sharing. In a period of hyper-sensitivity toward health and food safety, some restaurant owners are predicting that guests won’t want to let others pick off their plate.

Pan con tomato at Cooks & Soldiers. Credit: Becky Stein.

Credit: Bob Townsend

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Credit: Bob Townsend

When Basque restaurant Cooks and Soldiers reopens for dine-in service in early June, guests will notice more entrees on its tapas-heavy menu. This will be especially apparent with proteins in the asador section of the menu that features foods, such as the chuletón, a one-kilo bone-in ribeye, prepared in the restaurant’s wood-fired oven.

In addition, portion size will be decreased in anticipation of smaller party sizes. “Instead of dishes for four or more, it will be dishes (intended) for two, or sometimes one, person,” said Federico Castellucci of Castellucci Hospitality Group. “We think those who dine-in will be from the same household.” The current guidelines require restaurants to enforce social distancing of non-cohabitating persons.

Castellucci and his team are also gauging that diners will look “for more entrée stuff” at sister restaurant the Iberian Pig, a Spanish tapas concept with locations in Buckhead and Decatur. They tweaked that menu before reopening the Buckhead location for sit-down service Wednesday. On-premise dining at the Decatur spot begins June 10. Castellucci also wagers that “people who want to have their own tapas dishes will order their own and not share them.”

The Dry Aged Beef Tartare with Russian dressing and caraway vinegar is mixed tableside at Cold Beer. 

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The menu at Cold Beer, chef Kevin Gillespie's Eastside Beltline concept that debuted last summer, is all about a small-plate experience. When the patio reopens in a few weeks, regulars will notice changes to that carte. "We overhauled the menu," Gillespie said. "The food is not as designed for shareability as it used to be. And the things designed for sharing are easier to share," he said, explaining that the dishes have been conceived so that guests who share an order can easily transfer food from the serving dish to their own plates rather than repeatedly finger-pick from the same bowl.

Another of Gillespie's restaurants, Gunshow, offers a Southern spin on Chinese dim sum. That concept, he said, will be far more difficult to adapt to pandemic plating. "People could get their own plates of food," he reasoned, but "the magic of the restaurant is the energy and the way the food is presented." Gillespie tentatively plans to reopen the Glenwood Park eatery in July, but will continue to monitor the pace of the pandemic to ascertain whether a complete re-concept is necessary.

Chilled Mussels en Escabeche (left) and Crispy Eggplant are great ways to start a meal at Redbird. 

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Redbird is a mix-and-match small-plates concept that former Watershed owner Ross Jones and chef Zeb Stevenson launched last August at Westside Provisions District. "It's highly unlikely that people are going to want the same experience from Redbird that they did pre-COVID," said Stevenson.

Although the restaurant has yet to reopen, Stevenson noted that he may have to “make amendments to the menu or the structure of the menu” to make diners more comfortable. “One of the fun things about Redbird is the ability to take elements and put things on the table they want. I would hate to rob them of that experience.”

A cucumber cannelloni with horseradish panna cotta and borscht is an interesting way to start to start a seven-course tasting menu at Lazy Betty. 

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Chef Ron Hsu's James Beard-nominated Lazy Betty is built around a tasting menu. The fine dining restaurant in Candler Park may open for dine-in service as early as next week, but when it does, the chef's tasting menu that features 10 courses served at the chef's counter will not be part of the experience. "We are not going to let people sit at the chef's counter," Hsu said. "We're concerned because it's an open kitchen."

The regular Lazy Betty tasting menu will not require changes. One reason is because “everyone gets their own individual plate.”

Joey Ward is executive chef of Southern Belle and Georgia Boy. 

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Former Gunshow executive chef Joey Ward struck out on his own last year with two concepts: Southern Belle and Georgia Boy. The former focuses on small plates. The latter, accessed through the Southern Belle dining room, offered an intimate tasting menu for 16-seat audience. Ward recently launched takeout from Southern Belle, and he is not planning to change the model for that concept when the patio reopens for reservations-only dining June 3 because only one dish on that menu is specifically intended for two people to share. However, Georgia Boy is on pause indefinitely. Ward said that it would reopen in its former iteration only when there is a COVID-19 vaccine and they can safely seat people.

Chef Atsushi “Art” Hayakawa prepares and delivers the omakase personally to diners at the counter. 

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At Sushi Hayakawa, Chef Hayakawa and his team say they are well-prepared for changes wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. Over the past several years, the restaurant has been transitioning to a "more traditional sushiya." The restaurant is currently open for takeout, but when it reopens for dine-in service, omakase will be the only on-premise service format. "This environment is just forcing us to accelerate that transition," said Sushi Hayakawa's management team. Omakase, the traditional style of sushi service that is similar to a prix-fixe, chef's choice tasting menu, is "compatible with this new normal."

The intimate style of dining will be expanded from two diners per night to eight, in two separate seatings. Only one staff member will wait on diners, and a safety partition has been installed at the sushi counter as a transparent barrier between Chef Hayakawa and the guests. However, a la carte service, will be discontinued.

So is reopening a chef’s counter experience post-COVID realistic?

Ward says yes. He’s already gotten inquiries about when Georgia Boy will reopen and some customers have been upset that they haven’t reopened yet, so he knows there’s at least some demand.

"If we're able to weather the storm, there has to be a market for high level food," he said. "At the end of a hellish summer, it could be more important than ever make people smile through our craft."

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