At 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, the dining room at Nightshade is basically empty. A few people sit in a corner — one is the general manager, and two are her friends — eating what very well could be the last actual meal served inside the restaurant for weeks, or longer. The dining room is closed in order to comply with the citywide mandate that prohibits in-restaurant dining of any kind to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Right now, it’s delivery and takeout only across the city, even for some of LA’s high-end restaurants.
Normally, Nightshade, Eater LA’s 2019 Restaurant of the Year, is packed with diners, serving well over 180 covers on a busy weekend in a 60-seat space. Instead, chef-owner Mei Lin and her remaining salaried staffers are left trying to fulfill a trickle of takeout orders. Lin carves Cantonese barbecue short ribs, wraps them in aluminum foil, and places them into a paper to-go box, along with delicately sliced pickles, fresh mint, fermented radish, and a white bonito habanero emulsion. Normally, the dish, which contains 38 ounces of short rib (including the bones), costs $130, but today it’s $65 — essentially break-even after factoring in labor and overhead costs.
After restaurants were ordered to no longer allow dine-in customers, even upscale establishments were left with few options beyond last-ditch attempts at takeout and delivery. Nightshade’s takeout menu has just nine items on it, and likely will only be served until Friday. By the weekend, the restaurant will be out of ingredients and is likely to close indefinitely, laying off its entire staff. Even Lin doesn’t know what will happen next, though she estimates that her reserves can pay for two months of rent before the restaurant is out of money.
Lin and her team aren’t crimping their style in the time they have left: Along with two bone-in beef short ribs, the dish comes with two stacks of crisp butter lettuce, enough accoutrements for three or four people. Other items on the takeout menu include the famous congee, ordinarily presented in a pastel pink ceramic bowl, served in a 32-ounce deli container. It’s now $15, a discount of 25 percent.
Numerous higher-end restaurants in Los Angeles, including Citrin, Lukshon, Angler, Majordomo, and Rossoblu have already closed, while others, like Pasjoli, Antico, Cecconi’s, Capo, Petit Trois, and Republique will attempt to transform into takeout and delivery spots for the foreseeable future. On the whole, high-end restaurants are for a well-heeled clientele willing to spend upwards of $100 or 200 per person for dinner, and are built on a financial foundation of full reservation books and packed dining rooms to pay for an extensive service staff. They must now contend with a mere trickle of sales from takeout and delivery, packing immaculately sourced and prepared food into to-go containers.
They’re not alone: Luxe dining staples around the country have made similarly drastic changes to adapt to takeout and delivery, such as Seattle’s Canlis, which offers drive-thru burgers and its famous salad to-go; in New York City, even tasting menu restaurants and omakase spots are pivoting to takeout and delivery.
Evan Funke, a veteran of Wolfgang Puck’s busy catering operation, is putting together a special all-day menu for his Venice restaurant Felix. Pasta “kits” for two cost $38 each, and include uncooked portions of pappardelle with ragu bolognese, and orecchiette with sausage sugo. Funke is hand rolling and cutting all the pasta himself; home cooks really only have to know how to boil water. In spite of widespread restaurant closures, Funke still wants to offer something similar to what diners would experience at Felix with fully handmade pasta. Whole, wood-fired pizzas that are ready to eat cost $14-17 while containers of to-go pasta sauces cost start at $10.
Felix’s loyal Venice clientele probably won’t balk at those prices when they’re pining for their favorite neighborhood Italian. But Funke says it’s all in order to keep all his entire staff employed (which they are at the moment, though hours might have to get reduced in coming weeks) and to help pay incredibly high rent despite zero concessions from the landlord. Felix’s takeout likely will never come close to what the restaurant did with full service, as Funke says he’s hovering at $1,000 a day with takeout versus well over $20,000 of sales on a typical Monday night service.
Antico, another pasta-focused restaurant in the eastern part of Larchmont, is turning to $14 focaccia sandwiches and $40 pizzas each big enough for four people, along with $18 pints of ice cream. Republique on La Brea, usually a splurge French bistro dinner, has a more modest breakfast, lunch, and evening menu with the restaurant’s classics, such as $17 mushroom toast, $19 dry-aged beef burger, and a beef short rib entree at $42, and it’s all available via delivery or takeout.
Chef and owner Dave Beran says French bistro Pasjoli and sister restaurant Dialogue are transitioning to new takeout menus that offer almost-ready-to-eat food that diners will put the finishing touches on at home — allowing the restaurant to maintain a high standard of ingredients and execution (the dishes come instructions that even the most novice cooks can follow). Because neither Pasjoli nor Dialogue specialize in dishes designed for takeout, Beran thinks this is the best solution.
Dialogue, which has one Michelin star, normally spreads over twenty courses over a two-hour meal in its small dining room — not exactly ideal for takeout. Instead, the kitchen is offering larger dishes that just need to be brought to a boil or heated up on the stove. “We’re used to making a lot of cravable bites and just drew on reproducing what we do at [staff] family meal for the home,” says Beran. Meals for two or four people will come with a choice of salads, entrees, and even some of the tasting menu restaurant’s signature Basque cheesecake.
On why the restaurants were continuing to operate rather than just close down, Beran says, “As creatives we have to keep busy, if not we’re go stir-crazy. We need to do something,” he says. The idea is to serve food as reasonably-priced as possible, which means this isn’t a means to make very much profit. Beran thinks it’s worth it if the sales help pay for healthcare or payroll costs, but he’s already had to let go of hourly staff at both restaurants, retaining only salaried employees. Beran thinks continuing to find creative solutions in a difficult time across the restaurant industry has its merits: “This is something we need to do to make an impact for the community.”