January 28, 2021

How to Open a Top-Tier Restaurant in a Pandemic? Rethink Everything

Its layered plaster walls give the impression of an eroding canyon that leads into a modern room punctuated by vertical wood slats, sliding panels and widely spaced tables. In mid-March, though, with about 60 percent of construction done, Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a shelter-in-place order that would prohibit restaurant dining for months in Illinois. When, weeks later, the two partners set a July 28 opening date, it was a big roll of the dice.

On June 11, Ever emailed its mailing list to announce that two months’ worth of reservations were now on sale via the restaurant-reservation platform Tock. Chicago restaurants had been serving outdoor meals for just eight days, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Governor Pritzker had yet to announce a date when indoor dining could start. There was also no guarantee that a Covid-19 resurgence wouldn’t prompt another shutdown.

When the city did begin to allow indoor service, on June 26, it capped capacity at 25 percent. Ever cut its seating plan to 40 guests a night, not using all of the dining room’s 14 tables at once, but still: Would enough people feel comfortable spending $285 or more for a 10-course menu that would keep them indoors for about two hours? Is this kind of luxury dining still appealing and viable in the pandemic?

Ever might be the test case. Alinea, currently the city’s only restaurant with three Michelin stars, has been serving takeout comfort food since March, and has made no plans to reopen its Lincoln Park dining room. (AIR: Alinea in Residence, an outdoor pop-up on a West Loop rooftop, opened July 1, though it closed for three days after an employee, who had not worked in several days, reported testing positive for the coronavirus. AIR reopened after co-workers tested negative.)

Nick Kokonas, a co-owner of Alinea and the chief executive of Tock, said the Ever partners “probably don’t have much of a choice as to whether or not to open.”

“They started raising money and building this out before the crisis hit,” he said. “At some point if they don’t attempt to open, the financial obligations will be weighty enough that they cannot open.” (Mr. Muser agreed with that assessment.)

Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/28/dining/ever-chicago-restaurant-coronavirus.html

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