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

Image

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

Image

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

Image

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!)

 

The Covid Dairies Vol. 2

Image(My other specialty: walking on water)

As of today, 0.000219178% of the world’s population has been killed by the Covid_19 virus.

Day  7, Friday, March 20, The New Absurdity:

“Take out, grab-and-go only,” the Gubenator declares. And everyone falls into line. It’s a mere band-aid to local restaurants, who will never be able to stay open under those conditions. Most don’t even try.

Some brave souls, like Ohlala French Bistro in Summerlin are going to try to power through. It seems that the smaller the joint (i.e., the more the owner can do on their own without staff), the easier it will be for some to survive being nothing but a  ghost kitchen. Rooster Boy Cafe fits this description perfectly, as chef/owner Sonia El-Nawal already is a one woman band at her tiny operation. But for most venues that aren’t named Chick-Fil-A or McDonald’s? Fuggidabadit.

Friday is a weird day around the Curtas manse as well, as Mr. C spends the day feeling sorry for himself and watching documentaries, while The Food Gal® is nailed to her computer, restructuring and cancelling contracts (she sells advertising). By the end of the day, it’s a running joke that she’s busier than ever NOT making money.

As dinnertime rolls around, a good friend — Don Cramer — contacts us with an idea: Why don’t we do a Facebook Live chat about local restaurants who are remaining open?

We tell him we’re heading to Ohlala (and dining al fresco with our own table and chairs) and he says he’ll be right over.

So, Don shoots a Facebook Live, we freeze our buns off, and chef/owner Richard Terzaghi feeds us some beautiful paté and a steaming bowl of French onion soup in the parking lot. Classy AF, don’t you agree?

Image(Feeling very, very French al fresco on Friday)

“I’m not going to let this thing get me down,” Curtas tells himself, even as it’s getting him down.

Day 8, Saturday, March 21, Here Come the Health Nazis:

Saturday morn breaks, and Las Vegas’s biggest foodie girds his loins for a day visiting the front lines of this war against common sense.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner, here they come, with friends in tow, to see the damage for ourselves.

The first stop is Rooster Boy. Sonia has set up an ordering table out front, and is doing a limited menu of her specialties.

Orders are given, fabulous food shows up, and Las Vegas’s best breakfast is declared in fine fiddle.

Sonia also gives a nice interview. Some highlights:

– Her menu is very limited.

– Call ahead and check daily. Don’t act like John Curtas and barge in and order something; he’s an asshole.

– This could end up being a good model for her continued business (less hassle with taking orders and waiting tables).

– In some ways, a small operation like hers is better able to adjust and still keep its customers.

– She’s still baking her ethereal pastries every morning….but she’s not doing breakfast right now.

– Curtas doesn’t give a shit about social distancing.

– Thank god for alcohol.

Image

If there’s two things this shitshow of a public health fiasco is going to teach us, it’s that restaurants are indispensable cultural institutions, and that it’s a very short slide from well-intended vigilance to outright autocracy.

This becomes evident from Mr. Curtas’s next two stops.

Curtas has been friends with Rhonda and Jeff Wyatt since they took over Marché Bacchus Bistro and Wine Shop fifteen years ago. Many a day and evening they’ve whiled away over bottles of vino. He considers Jeff the go-to guy for Burgundies in Nevada, and although the selection is small, there’s never a bad buy in the bunch. Some would say this coziness keeps Curtas from being entirely objective about MB, but he’s fond of pointing out that he gives it to the chef with both barrels if the cooking isn’t up to snuff.

None of that matters today, as he drops in to buy some wine and give the Wyatt’s support, both emotional and financial.

Rhonda tells him she’s already gotten blowback about their Saturday wine sale. “Non-essential!” the finger-waggers scream. The Gubenator’s order isn’t 12 hours old and already people are chastising and accusatory. It’s all ridiculous (since nothing prevents people from buying booze at the supermarket), but that doesn’t keep folks from losing their shit over someone trying to sell a few bottles and stay in business.

Side bar: Anyone who’s ever wondered how Nazi Germany turned against the Jews has only to follow (so-called) liberals falling straight into fascism the second they think their well-being is being threatened.

It’s all very depressing, so Curtas and friends buy a boatload of wine and spend some hours getting hammered on the MB patio. Is it good wine? Of course it’s good wine! When the world is burning to the ground around you, you might as well blow your wad on great hooch.

Image

Buzzed on champagne and Barolo, Curtas and his too live crew head on over to Locale to show support for another good citizen who’s trying to soldier on through this debacle — recent James Beard nominee Nicole Brisson.

Side bar: Curtas likes Locale, but it’s too fucking far from his house (15 miles) to make it a regular stop on his restaurant rotation. It’s also too fucking far for almost anyone who doesn’t live in the far far southwest part of town to get to, which is a shame because its location (North Korea, a friend calls it) is a big hindrance to its popularity.

Like North Korea, the militarists here are everywhere and ready to clamp down on anyone who doesn’t agree with them, as you’ll see below.

Image may contain: Nicole Brisson, sitting(Nicole cooks, Cramer works, Curtas drinks)

So Cramer and Curtas shoot another Facebook video with Nicole, and chow down on the patio with some take-out food. Martin Scorceeze and Bobby DeNiro they are not, but hearts are in the right place, and a good time is ha by all.

Interview over, they eat; they kibitz, they drink and smoke cigars — on the restaurant’s patio way away from its front doors. This warms Curtas’s cockles. For an hour or so, he almost convinces himself the world has returned to normal.

He also notices a steady stream of folks going to Albertson’s a few doors down. Lots of them. In groups large and small, and nearly every group with a toddler or infant in tow. Much more than his little band of five hungry souls. This fact will come back to haunt him the next day.

The next morning, this shows up on some neighborhood website:

Image

 

“You are literally going to kill people,” someone named John Cooper says.

Someone named John Cooper does not know we are going to kill people. He only feels it. He feels it because the media has been drumming fears into him since February.

He has no idea how or why we would accomplish this. All Someone Named John Cooper knows is that the government and the media have spent the last six weeks whipping him and everyone else into a paranoid frenzy over how a superbug name Covid_19 — a coronavirus more contagious than other cold/flu viruses but no more deadly than the common flu — can be spread, and that we must all band together to stop the spread.

The government has very few tools at its disposal to do this. It can support the health care system when it gets overloaded, and it can encourage people not to spread disease, and, as a last resort, it can shut down things by declaring an “emergency.”

As of yesterday, there are 200+ cases of this virulent upper respiratory infection in the entire State of Nevada. Exactly four people have died from it, two in Southern Nevada. As emergencies go, it’s a pretty lame one.

From U.S. New and World Report: Most patients exhibit mild or moderate symptoms, but severe symptoms including pneumonia can occur, especially among the elderly and people with existing health problems. The vast majority recover.

Image

No one’s  going to kill anyone by sitting on a patio chatting, eating delicious oysters, and smoking cigars. Respectfully, Someone Named John Cooper, you are out of your mind.

But honestly, no one blames you, SNJC. You’ve had a steady stream of fear fed to you for weeks. Constant stories of how the virus will scale up until millions of Americans have it. Millions of Americans don’t have it, Approximately 47,000 Americans have had it. And they’re getting over it, SNJC, and feel just fine. But you never see media stories on the recoveries; you’ll only see people in respirators, and projections of who’s “going to get it” (they hope), so you’ll stay riveted to the drama.

Literally, in America, only two people in a million have died from it.

What many are calling a pandemic is really senseless panic — an unholy alliance of gloom-and-doom doctors, sky-is-falling statistics, health care Cassandras, hypochondriacs, a manic media, and do-gooder liberals — coming together to paint an end-of-days picture over a superbug. That’s it. We have as much chance of eradicating Covid_19 as we do of stopping sunshine. So get over it, and go have a good time.

Thanks for inspiration, SNJC, now, let’s get these myths disposed of so life can get back to normal.

Do you feel better? John Curtas hopes so.

Image(Capital Grille, noon, Friday March 20, 2020)

Image(Locale, 7 pm, Saturday March 21, 2020)

 

Wine is Hard, GARAGISTE Makes It Easy

Image(I’ll have what she’s having)

It used to be so simple. Learn a few grapes, a couple of countries, carry a vintage chart around with you, and sound like an expert.

Back in the Stone Age, that’s all you needed to do.

And by “Stone Age” I mean about 15-20 years ago.

40 years ago (about the time I started getting into wine), it was all about France….with a little California thrown in. Remember the Judgment of Paris? I do; I even remember the original Time magazine article about it. The whole episode rated about 300 words on a back page of the ‘zine — barely a blurb about some California upstarts (Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars) beating the Frogs at their own game.

Up until then, if you wanted to “know” wine as a consumer, you needed to know Bordeaux. Memorizing the 1855 Classification was essential, and woe to the poseur who couldn’t tell his troisieme cru from a Premier Grand Cru Classé.

There were sub-parts and sub-parts to the sub-parts of these classifications, but by and large, it was all about France. California started flexing its muscles in the early 1980s (bolstered in part by the growing legend of that 1976 Paris competition), but California was always easy: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and that was it.

Back then, Italy was atlas esoterica; Spain, the undiscovered country. Germany, Australia and Portugal? Strictly for the nerdiest of wine nerds. Chile, Greece, Hungary, Argentina, Mexico, Canada, China? Fuggidabadit.

Big, fruity Cabs were what counted in Cali, along with massive, over-oaked Chards. All you had to do was know your producers — few wineries were trumpeting their specific vineyards  — and after a couple of trips to Napa, you could strut around like some imperious Brit, expounding on the merits of the Rutherford Bench, or the superiority of Sonoma fruit.

Was it all bullshit? Of course it was all bullshit. Practically everything about wine is bullshit. Getting past the bullshit (so you can enjoy what’s in the glass) is half the fun.

These days it’s less about antiquated, overblown French marketing ploys and more about the beverage. Like the internet, the world of wine has expanded our horizons while shrinking the earth. Good wine is everywhere, and now being made from grapes no one had ever heard of in the last half of the 20th Century.

Wine is hard now. Very hard. As in, having to learn a dozen languages (plus topography) hard.

The trick is making sense of it. The secret is you don’t have to. All you have to do is know your wine bar.

Image

GARAGISTE opened late last year and almost immediately became an industry hangout — a place where the cool kids, not the rich kids, drink wine. It eschews the easy pickings of “name brand” wines (famous Burgundies, big hitter cabs, overpriced Bordeaux) for an ever-changing selection of new-fangled bottles from producers you’ve probably never heard of.  (For those unfamiliar with the term, “garagiste” refers to small, Right Bank producers who became known in the 1990s for making cult wines that aren’t worth the prices people pay for them.)

To be sure, you can still pick up some hefty Barolos, big Burgundies, or righteous Rhones here, but the specialties of the house are lip-smacking wines at reasonable prices that are so good you don’t care about their snob appeal.

This poses a serious conundrum for, let’s say, 90% of the fine wine drinkers in the world, who only drink wines based upon reputation. Or even worse, buy bottles based on the “score” some hack writer in some advertising rag (read: most wine journals) gave it.

You’re not going to hear a lot of “The Spectator gave this a ’94′” at Garagiste; nor will you see a lot of label whores showing off their good taste. Instead, you’ll find people who like wine because it tastes good, not by how impressive they think it is.

Las Vegas is late to this party (no surprise there) as these kinds of wine bars have been all the rage in Paris for over a decade. Just last weekend we stumbled upon Mignon in downtown Los Angeles, and it fit the same mold: passionate owners, reasonable prices, exquisite, obscure wines in an unpretentious setting. Exactly the opposite of the snobbery so often (rightfully) attached to wine drinking.

No one is talking scores here. Owners Eric Prato and Mario Enriquez are more interested in describing to you what’s in the glass, and turning you on to unfamiliar bottles, producers, and grapes.

They also do the natural wine/biodynamic-thing, but aren’t obnoxious about it. Both will tell you that some natural wines have a funky, less-polished, rough-around-the-edges taste to them that may not be to some people’s liking. You will get fair warning and also a taste before you have to commit to a whole glass.

You will also be getting an education here unlike any available at any other wine bar in town. Having two gifted sommeliers on hand most evenings to guide you through the pours is something other wine-drinking locations (what few we have) can only dream about. (Some joints around town are “wine bars” in the same way that any restaurant with a steak on the menu is a steakhouse.)

To be sure, there are things I don’t like about Garagiste. The setting is a bit cold, more industrial than cozy. Noise levels are up there — perhaps not at military jet-afterburner levels, but conversation-impeding just the same. (Enhancing conversation should be a wine bar’s second main purpose.) Some cushy chairs and strategically-placed sound baffles would go a long way. The nibbles are little more than a single (good) cheese platter with excellent bread from Esther’s Kitchen across the street, and at busy times, the owners and staff can be over-matched. (I’m actually ecstatic when the place is packed, and some crunchy grissini at the bar would also go a long way when you can’t get the staff’s attention.)

The plus side is that you’re in a wine bar, so relax, pilgrim. You’re not there to see how fast you can catch a buzz.

Also, patrons have quickly embraced options to the limited food offerings…by bringing their own! Prato and Enriquez are totally fine with you inhaling a burrito from Casa Don Juan (down the street) next to a sexy syrah, or pairing some Pad See Eiw from DE Thai Kitchen (around the corner) with a sassy Juliénas. Want a big-ass steak with your Chateau Cantermele? No problem, just get one to-go from Esther’s and eat it on the premises.

Image

Being something of a cheesehead, I’ve taken to bringing my own platters of Fourme d’Ambert, Comté, Pecorino, and Cabot’s Cloth-Bound Cheddar to enjoy with whatever cheese-wine pairing suits my fancy that day.

Another issue (more like a curiosity) is the way the bottles for sale are priced. Garagiste is both a bar and a retail store. The list you’re given is also what’s available for sale. Bottles to take home are priced at half what they cost if you drink them there. This makes the prices seem like a steal if you take one to-go, and a bit pricey if you opt to pop a cork on the premises. Still, even with this in-house mark-up, everything is at least half of what you’d pay for the same juice on the Strip.

And what you’re paying for is unique indeed. Interesting bottles, ever-changing wines by the glass, low prices, knowledgeable patrons, friendly owners, and a feeling as if you’re at the epicenter of a Las Vegas wine renaissance.

I’ve been saying for years that the craft beer has become ridiculous, and Millennials will eventually age out of all the cocktail folderol. It looks like it’s happening and Garagiste is ground zero for how it’s happening in Las Vegas.

Being someone who has waited 30 F*CKING YEARS,  for a place to drink good wine downtown, it couldn’t have happened a moment too soon.

Skoal!

GARAGISTE WINE ROOM/MERCHANT

197 E. California Ave. #140

Las Vegas, NV 89104

702.954.3658

Image(Weird-ass spirits in a wine bar? Yes!)