“Table for two—right this way.”
That’s a phrase Orange County food lovers, restaurant owners and employees have been waiting to hear since mid-March, when the coronavirus pandemic forced restaurants to either temporarily close or resort to takeout menus.
Gov. Gavin Newsom eased restrictions on May 23, to allow OC restaurants to once again offer dine-in service—albeit with a list of specific guidelines for both diners and restaurant staff.
Many local restaurants either reopened that same day or a few days later.
Others are being cautious and waiting to gauge the mood of their clientele before springing back into action.
By now, your favorite restaurant might be open for business, although it’s not business as usual.
Among the new dine-in guidelines: “Remove tables and chairs from dining areas so that 6 feet of physical distance can be maintained for customers and employees. If tables, chairs, booths, etc., cannot be moved, use visual cues to show that they are not available for use, or install Plexiglas or other types of impermeable physical barriers to minimize exposure between customers.”
It’s a challenge that OC’s restaurant industry is adapting to in different ways, from employee visors to rolling dividers and more al fresco dining.
The following is a sampling of what some of the area’s top chefs and restaurateurs are cooking up in their operations.
Serato’s Solution: Private Rooms, Air Filters
One of the first to announce he was open for dine-in business was Chef Bruno Serato of the Anaheim White House. He anticipated the Governor’s announcement and added physical barriers a few days before getting the OK to reopen. These clear moveable barriers-on-wheels match the restaurant’s ornate décor.
He’s also removed tables to allow for social distancing, but he has a secret weapon.
“I am the only restaurant that has 12 private rooms,” Serato said during a tour of his restaurant to see his mandated changes. “I am also lucky to have an amazing property. I have a garden and can put 15 tables there, with umbrellas and heaters. It’s stunning. And I have a veranda, with tables.”
Other measures Serato has put into place: special air conditioning filters and disinfectant, disposable menus, and staff at the restaurant’s entrance to take the temperature of every guest and employee that walks through the door.
Even with everything he has put into place, Serato is not sure if, or when, patrons are ready to dine in a restaurant again.
“I went thru 9/11. People were frightened, and it took a long time for people to feel secure again to come out. We lost a lot of business,” recalled Serato. “Then we went through the recession, which took years. People were scared and did not want to spend money.”
But the economy bounced back and Serato recovered. Things were going well. Then came a fire two years ago that nearly destroyed the restaurant. Again, Serato recovered, the economy was strong, and things were looking up.
“I was finally starting to get debt off my shoulders and starting to feel relaxed, then ba-da-boom, coronavirus. But I don’t give up; I am going to do everything I can to survive.”
Even through the years of adversity and during the coronavirus pandemic, Serato has continued what he’s become famous for: feeding thousands of at-risk kids pasta.
“I never missed a day after 9/11, after the recession, after the fire. We used to feed 5,000 kids a day and cook 1,000 pounds of pasta a week. Then it jumped due to coronavirus.”
Serato estimates that between delivering cooked pasta and sauce to boys and girls clubs, and giving individual families 10 to 20 pounds of uncooked pasta and sauce at a time, he’s provided more than half a million meals in the last two months alone.
His charity work will continue, but now Serato is focused on his restaurant and welcoming diners through his doors.
Anaheim White House: 887 S. Anaheim Blvd., Anaheim, (714) 772-1381, anaheim
Bendel’s Excitement, Tempered Expectations
The Business Journal’s 2018 Restaurateur of the Year Russ Bendel, whose culinary empire includes Vine, Ironwood and Olea, recently added a fourth restaurant. His ever-expanding company acquired longtime Laguna Beach culinary landmark Sapphire, which became a Bendel property just before the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Luckily for Bendel, his restaurants have patios, making it easier to arrange tables.
“Each location is different, but the good news is we can expand our patio seating to extend outside beyond normal areas and use areas like sidewalks, parking lots, courtyards, so people can sit outside,” explained Bendel. “It’s great for guests to be able to separate further than 6 feet. And we probably won’t have to use barriers since we have a pretty robust amount of space” at all restaurants.
At Sapphire, Chef Jared Cook is debuting dishes not on the other restaurant menus.
“We do have signature dishes that we wanted to incorporate as a good representation of all the restaurants, but we now have the opportunity to do breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” Bendel said.
“It’s an all-day operation, which is new to us so we’re excited. And the location can’t be beat, there is always lots of foot traffic and tons of parking.”
Even with the positive attributes and busy takeout service, Bendel knows his restaurants are not immediately going to return to normal revenue levels.
“We anticipate slowly getting back to that. We have the luxury of patios, so for every table we lose inside, we have more outside, and can still maintain 6-foot distancing.”
Ironwood: 25250 La Paz Road, Laguna Hills, (949) 446-8772, ironwoodlagunahills.com
Olea: 2001 Westcliff Drive, Newport Beach, (949) 287-6807, oleanewportbeach.com
Sapphire: 1200 South Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, (949) 715-9888, sapphirelaguna
Vine: 211 N. El Camino Real, San Clemente, (949) 361-2079, vinesanclemente.com
Non-Invasive Measures in CdM
Lessening anxiety is a key element in Chef Pascal Olhats’ plan to reopen his Café Jardin restaurant at Sherman Library & Gardens in Corona del Mar.
“We are lucky being a mostly outdoor restaurant in a garden, so we have some control, and we are going to keep it that way,” Olhats said. “You will feel safe, the staff will feel safe. Here in the garden, we will do everything we can do make you feel comfortable. We will be more proactive without being invasive. It’s a refreshing way to dine.”
Olhats noted that putting new processes in place means reinventing his restaurant, but he’s up for the challenge.
“We will use wood and bamboo tableware, everything will be biodegradable and compostable, which fits with the garden. We are going green—greener than before.”
His menus will be displayed at each table—both a lunch menu (he’s normally only open for lunch) and a takeout dinner menu.
“While you have lunch, you can order dinner to take home,” he said. “A one-stop thing. Come for lunch and take dinner home. I am trying to make your life easier, and hopefully tastier.”
Other plans include tables spread out in the garden so no chairs are less than 6 feet from each other, and a designated table for each party.
“I am not looking to pack the house,” reasons Olhats. “I want good space, staggered reservations.”
The Sherman Garden’s creperie, run by Olhats, has also expanded its service. n
Café Jardin: 2647 East Coast Highway, Corona del Mar, (949) 673-0033, pascal
Tables Remain at Tavern House
Chef and Restaurateur David Wilhelm, the man behind such legendary Orange County restaurants as French 75, Chimayo, Chat Noir, and now Tavern House in Newport Beach, said last week that “it seems like it’s been a lifetime, but the good news is we’re finally opening. We took a few days to get our staff back in and go over COVID protocols. We’ve been closed for several months, so waiting a few days didn’t make a difference. We wanted to provide the same level of service as we did before we closed.”
As with other restaurants, Wilhelm said he’s making accommodations for the new state guidelines, but he’s keeping tables in place.
“We’re using tablecloths at every other table to indicate which tables are available to be seated,” he explained. “We did not want to take a bunch of tables out and have the dining room look like a pool hall. We don’t want to draw people’s attention to it.”
Tavern House has been serving a limited takeout menu, which Wilhelm says he’ll continue to do after reopening in one form or another, but he hopes that “people are so tired of being at home that they’ll want to rush out and have the experience” of dining out again.
Due to the overwhelming response to Wilhelm’s barbecue ribs, pulled pork sandwich and watermelon margaritas featured on his Memorial Day weekend takeout menu, he has added the dishes to his new summer menu.
Tavern House: 333 Bayside Drive, Newport Beach, (949) 673-8464, tavernhousekb.com
Packing House Pondering
Food Network “Chopped” champion Shachi Mehra is the executive chef and owner of Adya restaurants in Anaheim and Irvine. Reopening its Irvine spot is relatively easy since it’s mainly takeout, but her flagship restaurant is in the Anaheim Packing House, a popular food hall containing dozens of restaurants.
“The individual restaurants do not have as much private space as common space,” Mehra said. “They removed a lot of tables and are figuring out how seating is going to work in a food hall. How do you get people to keep moving and not be too close to each other?”
For fast casual, “you’re standing in a line, you order and come back and get your food. We’ll have markers on the floor, a plexiglass divider between the cashier and customers. But will people go out with restrictions? As much as people want to go out, it’s going to be a different feeling. Will it fulfill that need, or will people just get food to go?”
“I think we’re going to see more people eating on patios, so the Packing House is working on seating in the park and in the backyard. It’s less of an obvious intrusion of the experience as a diner, it will feel more comfortable. But I don’t know if the perceptions of food halls will change.”
It will be more difficult to get customers back into a food hall given the restrictions and challenges, said Mehra, but “we’ll get there.”
Adya Anaheim: 440 S. Anaheim Blvd., #201, (714) 533-2392, adyaoc.com
Adya Irvine: 4230 Campus Drive, #P-166D, Irvine, (949) 679-2299, adyaoc.com
Moulin Starts with Patio Seating
The Business Journal’s 2019 Restaurateur of the Year Laurent Vrignaud is the mastermind behind the uber-popular Moulin restaurants in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Costa Mesa, and San Clemente. He is not opening his restaurants for inside dining just yet, mainly because “our product was always meant to be to go,” he said. “I’ll start with the patios and put half the tables out, separated from each other. If you decide to have your sandwich and sit down, that’s fine, but we’re not going to do what we were doing three months ago.”
“The restaurant business is a business of numbers, and the math still doesn’t work if you do things in a rush,” he said. “You have to have servers and cooks and dishwashers. It all has to be thought out. Luckily for me I have cafés with bakery items and sandwiches.”
Not everyone is as lucky, says Vrignaud.
“Some are better suited than others. Let’s take a huge restaurant like Water Grill. They cannot operate with only 100 customers. They need it full; you cannot have [full] staff and little business.”
Vrignaud predicts that three months from now, 25% to 30% of restaurants will be gone, because “if you reopen too quickly and do not have the customers to go with it, you cannot reopen.”
“Not everyone is going to survive.”
Winery’s Starting Point
The Winery Restaurants in Newport Beach and Tustin added moveable clear panels to its décor, plus permanent clear panels at every booth.
At the Newport Beach location, half of the tables on the upstairs patio that overlooks Newport Harbor were removed, and the remaining ones have clear panels between tables. The host stands also have a clear barrier.
The Winery panels are made of medical-grade Lexan, with Teflon on the bottom so they slide easily. They were created by Super Color Digital, an Irvine-based maker of large format printer products. They are optically transparent and look like they belong in the restaurant so as not to distract from the guest experience.
“Measures like this have us ahead of the game,” Winery partner JC Clow said during a tour of the Winery soon after the panels were installed. “But if it’s at 50% occupancy, I can only seat at every other booth. No matter how you put it, it’s a starting point.”
But will customers be ready to return?
“When people see all this, they will realize it’s nicer than they expected, the view is not blocked, and you can still people-watch,” Clow stated.
“It should lessen the anxiety.”
The Winery Newport: 3131 West Coast Highway, Newport Beach, (949) 999-6622, thewineryrestaurants.com
The Winery Tustin: 2647 Park Ave., Tustin, (714) 258-7600, thewineryrestaurants.com