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Duck confit by drive-thru: Pandemic can’t stop loyalists from dining out

Lockdown creates next-level functionality, from white tablecloth carryout to wine pairing via Zoom

When Chinese restaurants in Atlanta experienced a steep drop in traffic in February of last year amid mounting concern about a COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., few expected more than a brief decline in business. Within a month, every restaurant in Georgia had closed its dining room.

Takeout became the new normal. Trend-setting fine-dining restaurants suddenly had to take a cue from Domino’s as they scrambled to set up online ordering, add phone lines and figure out how to deal with the 6 p.m. dinner rush — all with a whittled-down staff and a disrupted supply chain.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

It’s to be expected that fast-food drive-thrus would thrive in a pandemic, but who would have thought that Bacchanalia’s tasting menu would be re-imagined for the carryout crowd? There were plenty of days that chef-owners like Local Three’s Chris Hall, in keeping with his company’s newly adopted COVID survival mantra to “embrace the suck,” stood in the street directing curbside pickup. Day after day, week after week, the Deer and the Dove owners Terry and Jenn Koval, with the help of just three other employees, packed quail, duck confit, and red snapper with risotto in to-go boxes. In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last April, Terry Koval called the schedule “brutal.”

ExploreMetro Atlanta restaurants go beyond dine-in, takeout with markets

“We all want to cook great food without sacrificing our standards,” Koval said, as he watched farm-to-table operations like his own elevate the takeout game into an art and determined not to become a casualty of the pandemic.

Restaurants haven’t just fed our pandemic-induced hunger for comfort food with trays of pasta, take-and-bake lasagna, pot roast and mac and cheese. Plenty of eateries sold us everything but the kitchen sink, unloading their inventory of dry goods, dairy, wine and beer — even throwing in a free roll of toilet paper — so that we didn’t have to take a trip to the grocery store. Diners showed their loyalty by contributing to online campaigns to help out-of-work servers, as well as to keep longtime establishments such as Manuel’s Tavern and the Colonnade open.

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Since then, more than half a million Americans, including more than 15,000 in Georgia alone, have died from COVID-19. Over the past year, just about every aspect of daily life also has changed, from the tragic to the mundane. Between now and March 21, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is publishing several stories chronicling the impact on Atlantans and Georgians — what we’ve lost, how we’ve changed, and what we’ve gained.Coming soon: How we gather

April 27 was a historic day. All eyes were on Georgia as Gov. Brian Kemp loosened dining restrictions and restaurants in the state became the first in the nation to reopen since the March lockdown. We ushered in this new age in dining with physical, technological and behavioral changes in an effort to keep employees and guests safe from an invisible virus. Hostesses stood at the door checking temperatures, servers donned masks and gloves, hand sanitizer replaced salt and pepper shakers on tables, Plexiglas divided booths, and tables were spaced 6 feet apart. They still are.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Buffets, salad bars and self-serve drink stations became a thing of the past.

The cooties-free future is contactless and cash-free, so we learned to use our cellphones to access menus, to order, pay and pick up our food.

For diners who ventured out, the preferred seat wasn’t within the four walls of a dining room. It was anywhere outside — be it patio, sidewalk or parking lot. When the weather turned cold, some of us bundled up and still dined under the stars (near a heater, if we were lucky), maybe in a tent — even an igloo. Some of us may have breathed easy at places that invested in HVAC upgrades or air filtration in the quest for better ventilation.

The pandemic has seen the birth of restaurant offspring that include markets of the brick-and-mortar and online-only variety, Zoom wine dinners and virtual restaurants dubbed ghost kitchens. Takeout for every tier of dining establishment is here to stay, too. Restaurants have their own COVID-speak.

ExploreGeorgia eases a bit on restaurant rules in latest COVID executive order

After decades working in the dining scene, restaurateur Gerry Klaskala of Aria has seen his share of changes, although none forced overnight quite like what we witnessed in 2020.

During the pandemic, Klaskala has mentored less experienced operators. In a recent exchange, a young owner voiced doubts about getting through it all. Klaskala’s advice is applicable to diners who pine for the old way of eating out: “Sometimes when you try to digest the whole thing, it’s a bit much. Take it a little bit at a time and try not to get yourself overwhelmed,” he said.

What’s heartwarming as opposed to overwhelming is to remember that we ate to save restaurants. They, in turn, saved us — be it from a night of arduous cooking after a long workday or from the pain of being away from family and friends. In doing so, we all gained a lot — maybe even the dreaded quarantine 15 on our expanded waistlines.

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