The Covid Diaries – Vol. 10 – What’s Next?

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Day 57, May 12 – Surveying the Landscape

What’s next? Who the fuck knows.

Trying to figure out what’s next is the question on everyone’s mind.

I, for one, have decided to stop thinking about it.

Fearing for businesses I love, and the futures of people I respect, has (literally) kept me up nights over the past six weeks.

But it’s a “no win” game going on between my ears, because what’s done is done and nothing I think, do, or say will affect what’s going to happen.

All I can do is continue to put my money where my mouth is, and urge you to do the same.

Image(Beauteous bento at Kaiseki Yuzu)

Trying to find a silver lining in the cloud that hangs over Las Vegas is a fool’s game. Nothing good will come out of this.

Most cities are fearful for some peoples’ jobs; Las Vegas has an entire industry that’s been laid to waste.

We’re talking entire hotels going under, not just a few small businesses, or the death of an outdated business model.

Imagine someone telling New York City it can re-open, but Wall Street has to remain closed “indefinitely” and you’ll get the idea. Or Hollywood being told it can’t make movies and TV shows in the foreseeable future.

The Sinking of the RMS Titanic (1912)(Las Vegas, say hello to your leetle friend)

Every city’s economy will feel a ripple effect from this shutdown; in Vegas, it is more like a tidal wave, soon to be followed by another tidal wave…as Titanic after Titanic sinks.

If/when a place like Mandalay Bay goes down (with its thousands of employees), it’ll be more like an aircraft carrier sinking.

To keep the maritime metaphor going, turning around Las Vegas’s shattered economy will be like asking the 7th Fleet to change course.

The word is MGM Resorts is going to open only two hotels in its portfolio: Bellagio and New York New York. The Palms has been shuttered until a buyer can be found — taking with it a star-studded lineup of restaurants, including Vetri, Mabel’s BBQ, Shark, and Scotch 80 Prime. The exquisite Mr. Coco is also history.

The Wynn/Encore group is making noises about re-opening everything (including all restaurants) this summer, but its statements feel more like a p.r. gambit than reality.

Venetian/Palazzo is a more unwieldy beast, with dozens of eateries leasing space in both the hotels and the Grand Canal Shoppes. Still, props to both hotel corps for being aggressive in trying to make themselves attractive to vacationers again — even if a quarter of all their customers have indicated they won’t return to Sin City until a vaccine is found.

Nothing about the numbers looks good for the hospitality industry. The Nevada gubenator has mandated a 50% reduction in seating in all restaurants — as if businesses operating on 10% margins can make a go of it with their revenue stream cut in half.

Locally, Tivoli Village (a restaurant black hole in the best of times) is losing Brio and Hampton’s, with perhaps more on the way. Unless some free rent deals are figured out pronto, expect others to follow suit.

Image(Maggie the Magnificent)

The only good news I’ve been able to discern in all of this, after speaking with numerous chefs and owners over the past month, is this: small, personal, low-overhead joints may be able to weather this storm. Places like Japaneiro (top of page) La Maison de Maggie (above) Kaiseki Yuzu, The Real Crepe, Elia Authentic Greek Taverna, or Saga Pastry + Sandwich, might survive, with a little help from the government and their landlords.

These eateries are simple operations — little more than a chef/owner at the helm and a helper (often a family member) in the dining room or kitchen. I like to think of them as speedboats, rather than the behemoth battleships of the Strip. They can get by with less because their operations are so bare bones. This was a major part of their charm before, and it’ll be what drives customers to them now.

Re-booting won’t be so easy for chef-ier joints like Esther’s Kitchen, Partage, Honey Salt, Sparrow + Wolf and Other Mama. Don’t kid yourselves — for all the laid back vibe they project, these are sophisticated operations with lots of moving parts. The good news is they have loyal followings of diners just itching to return; the bad news is you may find a restaurant that, for the time being, is 50% of what it used to be in more ways than one.

Image(Hiro-san slices heroic sushi)

If I was a betting man, I’d be betting on Chinatown. And by “Chinatown” I mean our pan-Pacific panoply of Asian eats all over town.

Never underestimate the resourcefulness of Asians, I say!  They’ve been bucking the odds in this country since the 1850s. Their restaurants, almost by definition, are lean and mean family operations. They expect less and have centuries of experience doing more with less, cooking-wise.

For a taste of Vegas like it was a couple of months ago, you can’t go wrong with  Shang Artisan Noodle, Hiroyoshi, Monta Ramen, or China Mama, or scores of other joints up and down Spring Mountain Road.

Yes, nothing is coming up roses right now, but worrying about it accomplishes nothing. (Easy for me to say, I know.)

How quickly people forget that the reason for the lockdown in the first place was to “flatten the curve” and keep our hospitals from being overrun. Guess what? They never were, and the curve flattened long ago.

This is what happens when you turn public policy over to germaphobes, public health ninnies*, and fraidy-cat politicians. They’ve ensured that the picture ahead isn’t pretty — but it might be pretty tasty if you know where to look.

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* Pardon my snark, but if pro-shutdown advocates are going to continue to treat Covid deaths (most of which are the very sick and old) as tragedies of biblical proportions, then I’m going to (continue to) to play the cynical skeptic.

The Covid Diaries – Vol. 8 – The Shape of Things to Come

robot serving GIF by The Venture Brothers

Day 31, Wednesday, April 15, – What’s Next?

Assuming any are around a month from now, restaurants surviving this coronapocalypse will face a strange new world of less customers. freaked out diners, intense public health scrutiny, and a depleted workforce.

All this while trying to resurrect their economic lifelines and deal with supply chains in ruins.

When it comes to Las Vegas, there’s really two conversations to have here: one about off-Strip dining scene (You remember it don’t you? The scene that was starting to boom over the past three years?), and the Strip, with its hundreds of food outlets serving (primarily) our tourist economy.

For purpose of these predictions, let us concentrate (mostly) on trends which will affect both.

There are no crystal balls at work here, and some of these are beyond obvious, but they bear reminding to brace yourself for the brave new world in eating out that’s right around the corner.

And for the record, it would please us no end if we are proved totally wrong on all of them. Well, almost all of them.

Fewer Diners

Everything’s about to shrink: customer base, restaurant seating, booze consumption, and profits. Those people you see dancing in the streets? Bankruptcy lawyers.

Shorter Menus

Every menu in America that isn’t a Chick-Fil-A has just been cut in half. Many will stay that way. Shorter menus are great for many reasons, but mainly because you can spend less time ordering and more time worrying about that cough from four tables away.

Close tables

Cheek-by-jowl jostling with strangers over a plate of steak frites has gone from good to gauche. Huge Strip restaurants will reduce capacity (e.g. 300 seat places (like Mon Ami Gabi) will suddenly find themselves with a third less tables. Tiny neighborhood joints will feel the pressure too. Guess which ones will be hurt the most?  A fifty seat mom and pop cracker box can’t make a profit if it’s cut in half. No word yet from the epidemiologists on the disease-catching horrors lurking in back-to-back booths.

Buffets

MGM to temporarily close Vegas buffets as virus precaution

Put a fork in them, they’re done. Deader than Julius Caesar. Forget about sanitary masks and table-spacing — after this world-wide freakout, no one’s going to want to stand in line with hundreds of strangers while waiting to eat….much less handle a serving spoon that’s been touched by fifty filthy kids.

Opposing view: Death by calories will not dissuade these eager over-eaters from their orgies of excess. Buffets and Covid19 have a lot in common: both are vaccine-proof and impervious to common sense — always ready to stealthily reinsert themselves into our defenseless body politic as soon as our sneeze guards are down. The same credulous fraidycats  who bought the coronavirus scare wholesale will be only too eager to resume shoveling AYCE into their pie holes, as soon as some authority figure says it’s “okay”. Catching a virus may have terrified them in the short-term, but government can stand only so long between a man and his third dessert.

Loud and Crowded Goes Kaput

A corollary to “close tables” above. Three-deep bars and people screaming to be heard will be seen as toxic. In well-spaced, too-quiet places, expect people to start yelling across tables just for old time’s sake. Baby Boomers, mostly.

Communal tables

No one will want to dine next to strangers anymore. From now on, people will let public health doctors tell them how they should sit and socialize —  in the same way we let dentists tell us what food to chew, and gynecologists dictate who we should sleep with.

Smaller Plates

Here’s one we’re on the fence about.  Will portions shrink to reflect tougher times? Or will the good old “blue plate special/meat and three” make a comeback? In other words, will gutsy food replace preciousness? One thing’s for sure though, there will no longer be restaurants centered around…

Share Plates

Shared plates (and/or everyone picking off a central platter) will NOT be a theme of most menus coming out of this. You might as well ask your friends, “Let’s go infect each other over dinner.” Even though it’s not true, you’ll get a lot of “Ewwww” at the very thought. If you want to eat communally, you’ll have to go Chinese. Possibly in a private room. Probably with a bureaucrat standing over your shoulder.

Tweezer Food

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Can’t die a moment too soon. As Julia Child once said (when looking at a nouvelle cuisine creation): “You can just tell someone’s fingers have been all over it.” The absurdity of molecular cuisine will also perish in a sea of silly foam.

Unfeasibly Long Tasting Menus

Once the dust settles, the 1% will start flocking back to destination restaurants. Or will they? Something tells us all the “chef’s vision” malarkey — which has powered the World’s 50 Best for the past decade — will henceforth be seen as decadent. Simple, local cooking with good ingredients will replace three hour slogs through some overpraised, hipster chef’s fever dream.

Linens? Sanitary or Un-?

Personally, many who dine out often long for the days of real cotton napery and tablecloths. We prefer them to wet, slimy, cold, hard surfaces where who-knows-what has been smeared on it. Unfortunately, it’s a cinch the health Gestapo will mandate the constant wiping down of tables, and human comfort and civilized dining will one of the casualties….at least in America. We can’t imagine the old-school, haute cuisine palaces of France serving dinner on bare-bones tables…although some already do. The smart set will bring their own cleaning supplies….because nothing says “night on the town” like handi-wipes and a personalized spray bottle.

Sommeliers

Sad to say, but somms will be an endangered species in this new economy. Wine lists will shrink; prices will come down; and choosing a bottle will be between you and your wine app. This will save you money (on tips), and gallons of self-esteem points by no longer being humiliated because you don’t know the difference between a Malagousia and a Moscofilero. Idiot.

Wine/Bars

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Expect wine in general to take a hit, especially the expensive stuff. Especially in America. The health nuts will try (and fail) to turn bars into fully automated spaces with all the charm of a DMV waiting room.

Celebrity Chefs

Their popularity has been shrinking for a while now. Is anyone dying to go to a Bobby Flay restaurant anymore? Even if Shark in The Palms is pretty good? El Gordo’s shtick will start (start?) looking stagey and superficial in the culture of asceticism to come. Not to mention the idiocy of $$$s being thrown at him/them by clueless casino accountants, just to see a famous name on a door. And because the cache of chefs has shrunk…

Bad Boy Chefs

…are probably a thing of the past, too. Ditto their tattoos…and tatts on waitstaff and barkeeps. In this hyper-hygienic, monochromatic, new world order, anything that smacks of personal expression and pirate rituals will not be a good look when it comes to selling vittles. Imagine a world where everyone looks like Barbie and Ken, right down to the lack of genitals, and you’ll get the idea. Sexy.

Asian food

Specifically Chinese food. Face it: America is racist, and many blame the Chinese government for this debacle. While the blame may be justified, this isn’t fair to Chinese-Americans or Chinese restaurants in America. But fairness has no place in post-Covid society. Once the tail starts wagging the dog, don’t expect the bull to go easy on the China shop.

More Plastic!

The world’s fear of viral infection will make clean freaks out of everyone. And this means more single-use plastic: gloves, Styrofoam, containers, take-home boxes, utensils, etc.. Germaphobes are going to have a field day “protecting” us from cooties….even if it means ruining our long term health and the environment. This is known in public health circles as saving your life by killing everything around you.

Take-out food 

Every operator thinks this whole pick-up/delivery thing is here to stay.  Doesn’t matter that all food tastes better when eaten right after it’s prepared. (The only exceptions are cold sandwiches and burgers…and even fast food burgers suffer from remaining too long in the sack.) Good food doesn’t travel well. Good food needs to be eaten as soon as it’s done. Human beings have known this for thousands of years. But because of this shutdown, restaurants will try in vain to prove otherwise. Eating take-out from a good restaurant is like watching a blockbuster movie on an iPhone.

Automated food prep – robot chefs!

robots cook GIF

To those promoting AI cooking, conveyor belt sushi, automaton waiters, and  computerized everything, this Covid crisis has been manna from heaven. The only thing that will suffer from this automation will be your dignity and good taste.

Home Cooking….

…will NOT have a resurgence, Neither will bread baking. Why? Because cooking is hard and bread baking is even harder. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Less late night/less bars/less luxury spending

Bottle service > dead. Ginormous nightclubs > toast. Dayclubs > history. Lounge acts and supper clubs (circa 1975) will be replacing them. You heard it here first: Once  Mel Tormé impersonators get rolling, Elvis imitators will seem cheesier than a Velveeta fondue.

Hygiene Obsession

MUCH GREATER EMPHASIS ON HYGIENE – of customers,  restaurants, and their staffs. Will everyone have to be tested before entering? Will your waiter be wearing a mask? Will all of these ruin your enjoyment of eating out by turning restaurants into the equivalent of hospital food being served by prison guards in a boarding school mess hall? Does the Pope wear a beanie?

Coffee and Cocktails Will Conquer

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The first businesses to revive after this nonsense subsides will be coffee houses and cocktail bars. They will be the easiest businesses to ramp back up, and will provide a quick, cheerful respite from the misery that has enveloped society. Restaurants, especially mid-tier, independently-owned restaurants will have the hardest time of it. The catchwords will be comfort over creativity. And nothing is more comforting in trying times than a good cocktail…or a cup of coffee.

Critics get Cashiered

Reports of critics’ demise have been greatly exaggerated for over a decade, but this could be the final nail. The last straw. The icing on the funeral potatoes, if you will.

Image(You got what you wanted, restaurants: no more critics! But just think of the cost. Cheers!)

 

Well This Sucks – The Covid Diaries Vol.1

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The Coronavirus Diary. Volume 1, Day 1, Friday the 13th: Clouds on the Horizon

Who would’ve thought that my lunch at Cipriani last Friday would be the last time I had a really good, relaxed time in a restaurant?

We ate well. I ate in two shifts: the first with two colleagues, the second with good friends and The Food Gal®.

Lunch turned into dinner at Soho Japanese Kitchen where I tapped out after a few courses. (Seven straight hours of eating and drinking will do that to you.)

Crowds were smaller at both places; you could feel the clouds of contagion building. Everyone knew fear and layoffs were in the air. We just didn’t know how soon and how severe it would be.

Our waiter Vincenzo looked around the Cipriani dining room and said he was worried for both of his jobs (there and at Giada). Like many in the Vegas hospitality trade, he holds down two gigs — lunch and dinner — often at two very different spots. Vincenzo is as Italian as Pavarotti, with a twinkly charm underneath his sing-song-y accent, and he fits an Italian restaurant like parm on pasta. Three days later he will be out of both jobs.

Day 2, March 14: Canary, Meet Coal Mine

The Bellagio announces it is closing all restaurants except Sadelle’s and Prime.

Day 3, March 15: Reality Looms

Beware the Ides of March, Caesar was told. He ignored the warning; the rest of Las Vegas took it to heart. Within five days of the announced severity of the coronavirus, MGM uses today to let the hammer drop on all of its venues. Some hotels, like Caesars and Venetian/Palazzo stand firm and act like they can weather the storm.

Because of this, for about two days, locals feel restaurants and bars will still be functioning, albeit with far fewer customers. Still, it’s obvious the virus has mushroomed into society-wide panic. Most media outlets are claiming the virus is “sweeping the nation,” even though the number of Americans actually infected with Covid_19 amounts to .00016% of the American populace.

“We’ll figure out a way to keep the doors open,” Venetian and Caesars say. Silly them.

I spend the afternoon getting drunk on expensive hooch on my patio, and eating some tasty cheese I had flown in from The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills — because eating and drinking well is to me what swinging a golf club is to Tiger Woods.

Day 4, March 16: Support Your Local Chinatown

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Hotels and Strip restaurants closing left and right. Local joints girding their loins but seem safe. I make a show of going to Every Grain for lunch (it’s mostly empty), and China Mama for dinner (ditto). And I’m not shy about letting social media know what I think about all of this viral hysteria and how it will devastate the hospitality industry. For this I get called everything from Typhoid Mary to the worst thing since Hep C.

I also get into one of those Facebook commenting wars with someone named Emily Jillette, who’s married to someone named Penn Jillette, who calls me everything from a joke to an asshole. It’s really quite amusing to have her (try to) insult me by telling me how she’s “friends with lots of chefs” who “universally hate me.” Emily hates me (apparently) because I’m eating in restaurants and encouraging others to support these businesses in a time of crisis.

She’s not the only one who hates me for thinking this whole quarantine-thing is a huge overreaction, but she’s definitely the most profanely entertaining  of the bunch.

Day 5, March 17, Goodbye to all That:

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In less than 24 hours, every bar and restaurant is being told to close or serve customers by take-out only. This results in my having to drink my coffee outside of my favorite coffee bar — Vesta Coffee Roasters — in downtown Las Vegas. I do not like being told I have to drink my coffee on a grab-and-go basis. My lack of amusement at this ridiculous restriction will be made more than apparent in the coming days.

This is when reality really starts to sink in. By noon everyone knows the Governor is going to order the shutdown of all “non-essential businesses.” The Governor of the State of Nevada does not realize that for many of us, restaurants, coffee bars are just as essential as a warm bed.

For these reasons, we hunker down on Tuesday and eat leftovers (yummy) from China Mama for lunch as we await the governor’s proclamation. It is Saint Patrick’s Day and no one seems to notice.

That night we eat at Edo Tapas & Wine to show our support, and as good as the food is, the place feels like we’re administering its last rites. No way will a chef-centric, highly-tuned restaurant like Edo be able to survive on take-out trade. Someone should tell our clueless Gubenator this, but he’s too busy listening to the hysterics.

Day 6, March 18, The Day the Music Died:

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Last night the Gubenator shut down the Strip (which he has the power to do). He also “ordered” all “non-essential businesses” to close, which, technically, he does not have the power to do. (At least it’s debatable in some quarters.)

Regardless, he’s a politician and politicians pander to the majority and the majority of people are screaming for government to “do something” about a virus that’s infected .000017% of the American population. So order away he does.

And everyone complies. Everyone complies because, 1) they’re scared not to comply; and 2) they know everyone will hate them if they don’t comply. (I know 1 and 2 are basically the same thing, but I’m trying to make a point here.

In support of our Chinese-American restaurants — who, after all, have been doing to-go food better than anyone for 170 years — we order take-out from Kung Fu Thai-Chinese. (Las Vegas oldest – since 1973 – Chinese restaurant.) I’ve never been quite sure whether Kung Fu is a Chinese restaurant that serves Thai food or a Thai restaurant with a Chinese menu, but it doesn’t matter these days. It always does a solid job, and it’s been years since I’ve been. so there’s a silver lining to the unfortunate circumstances that bring me here.

The Food Gal® picks up our huge order ($66 + $10 tip) we gorge ourselves on Yen Ta Fo, Todd Munn, Pad Thai and Spicy Chicken. We have enough food to last for days.

I announce on Twitter that no one’s getting a bad review while we try to weather this economic body blow, and I mean it.

Day 7, Thursday, March 19, Pastries and Steaks:

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I wake up at 4:00 am with an idea(s): 1) to start this diary; and 2) not to let this craziness defeat me. Restaurants are as much a part of the American cultural identity as football and gas-guzzling cars. It’s sort of amazing how quickly sports dried up (and how no one seems to miss them all that much), but restaurants are where we sustain life and enrich it. Methinks people are going to be screaming for food to return to normalcy a lot faster than begging to see if Andrew Bogut dunks on Miles Plumlee.

I’ve also decided to stick with my normal routines as much as possible. And by “stick with my routines as much as possible” I mean start my morning with good French pastry.

This part is easy. Food serving operations like Delices Gourmands French Bakery & Cafe are not being shut down, you simply can’t stay and sit to enjoy your morning brioche. Mr. Curtas is very fond of his morning brioche, and will therefore pick-up, take it to his office, and enjoy it there.

These pastries taste to him both of butter, dough and normalcy, so, for fleeting seconds he can pretend his world is not crumbling around him.

As he’s munching and pretending with his Danish, Mr. Curtas wonders just how fucked is the American restaurant industry? 

Answer: Very. 15 million people are out of work in less than three days to combat a virus that will never infect even 1.0% of our population. A virus that all medical experts say 80% of adults will recover from without any medical intervention.

As Mr. Curtas ponders these statistics, he decides to do two things: 1) refer to himself solely in the third person til this thing blows over; and 2) eat steak for lunch. Good steak. Steak directly from the Capital Grille meat locker.

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With the help of Manager Drew Weintraub, we get a tour of the locker and get to pick out an entire strip loin to be bandsaw’d into individual steaks. This costs $250, but we get eight, restaurant-quality strip steaks (and a porterhouse)out of the deal.

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We take them home, and with the help of our comrades-in-epicurean arms the Tollefson’s, we cook up the porterhouse — heavily-seasoned (above), seared on both sides, finished under the broiler). It was damn tasty, and half the cost it would’ve been at the restaurant. But let’s face it, great steaks lose some luster when nibbled on your kitchen counter.

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Sounds pretty okay, doesn’t it? Super steaks and expensive wines for lunch?

It’s not. It’s bloody awful. As he’s chewing his steak and quaffing his wine, Curtas can’t stop the emptiness from grabbing his stomach, like a clouded mood settling permanently into his gut. Fears and fatalism sickening in their ubiquity, unquenchable by food or drink.  And now they are upon him. The world has lost its fucking mind. And things are about to get worse.