Last month, Noma Restaurant in Copenhagen announced it was getting ready to reopen as the Danish quarantine restrictions were being lifted. The restaurant currently holds two Michelin stars (formerly three) and has been named The World’s Best Restaurant on four occasions. It is one of the hardest tables in the world to secure, often requiring a waiting period of several months.
However, Noma also observed that it would take some time to prepare the restaurant for full service, and that a firm opening date wasn’t in sight. In the meantime, they were shifting to a new concept: an outdoor wine bar serving cheeseburgers, both for seated service and takeout. “Come as you are, there are no reservations,” said Chef René Redzepi. “We are open for everyone.”
While intended to be temporary, it provided a glimpse into post-pandemic dining: cheeseburgers at Noma (you can also get a veggie burger if you so desire).
On the other side of the Atlantic, a similar scenario was unfolding at Canlis, the legendary Seattle restaurant founded in 1950. Like many other establishments, they switched to takeout and delivery during the quarantine, but there were hints that the transformation wasn’t intended to be temporary. Like Noma, they were serving burgers, but adding a drive-through capability; bagels were also featured on the new menu. Their website proclaimed that “fine dining is not what Seattle needs right now.”
“We were born to be a drive-through,” said Mark Canlis. “After 70 years it’s finally coming to our senses, it’s letting our inner freeway out.”
Some high-end establishments were hinting they might not reopen at all—and not for financial reasons, amazingly enough, but because they no longer saw the point. Manhattan’s Eleven Madison Park, holder of three Michelin stars and more culinary accolades than anyone could possibly count, morphed into a commissary kitchen during the lockdown and produced 3,000 meals each day for first responders, essential workers and underprivileged citizens. Chef Daniel Humm called it a “lightbulb moment,” and vowed to continue feeding the homeless even if the restaurant did reopen. Observing that it was time to “redefine what luxury means,” Humm stated that “I don’t need to only feed the 1 percent anymore.”
These are not isolated cases, and they seem to point to a reassessment of our values. During the past few decades, many consumers who weren’t members of the 1% discovered the joys of fine dining. Thousands of restaurants sprang up to meet that demand; many were more modest than Noma and Eleven Madison Park, but they offered prix fixe, multi-course menus that allowed the chef to express himself or herself according to the ingredients available in the market. Those establishments are now shifting to permanent grab-and-go formats and offering dishes based on cheaper ingredients. On top of that, consumers had the chance to rediscover cooking during the pandemic, and awareness of quality produce has led to a surge in community supported agriculture.
Restaurants will always exist, of course, but it’s now obvious that they’ll be very different. A new world is coming, and the parameters are unknown.
Mark Spivak is an award-winning writer specializing in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He has written several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture. His two novels, Friend of the Devil and The American Crusade, are available on amazon.com; the third, Impeachment, will be released this fall.