By any measure, the pandemic has been dreadful – yet, it has also elicited turbo–charged creativity and displays of resilience, especially in the restaurant industry, where the ability to adapt fast and problem solve are prerequisites for the job. From pop–ups to patio mania, here are some of the Covid era restaurant pivots that we admire most, and that we hope are here for good.
While we’re ready to bid farewell to the last 18 months, we don’t want to say goodbye to these new dining trends.
Restaurants = neighbourhood grocery stores
Restaurants and food suppliers faced an unprecedented impact to revenue streams during the pandemic, which led to an explosion in new grocery stores – either bricks and mortar or online. In British Columbia, Legends Haul added home delivery to its existing business of distributing locally sourced foods to restaurants and retailers. Similarly, Niche Grocerant, a hybrid restaurant and grocery store, stocks pantry items from partner restaurants on Vancouver Island and serves dishes made with local products. Saskatoon’s Little Market Box took farmers’ market products online, while Toronto’s Mattachioni removed its tables and chairs to become an Italian grocer and takeout spot.
Not that we ever needed an excuse to sit outside as soon as the frost recedes, but the pandemic did birth a plethora of new patios. In St. John’s, the genius Downtown Pedestrian Mall instituted by the city in 2020 returned this year, nearly tripling the number of outdoor dining spots in the city, which included Boca Tapas Bar and Cojones, who expanded their patios and added retractable awnings and side panels. In Toronto, King Street’s Ardo improvised by turning a back alley into a patio. Calgary’s The Dandy Brewing Company constructed a space complete with large fire pits that allow them to extend patio season into the cold months, while Winnipeg’s mobile bar/beer garden The Beer Can popped up in a new location this year – in the parking lot of the Granite Curling Club.
Bottle shops and cocktails–to–go
Cool neighbourhood bottle shops continued to evolve in year two of the lockdown, riding a wave of provincial policies allowing wholesale liquor purchased by restaurants and bars to be sold to the public. Even before this became an option, Vancouver’s Dachi rolled the dice and began offering customers bottles at liquor store prices, with a modest corkage fee. Their efforts earned them fierce neighbourhood loyalty, which in turn led to an expanded natural wine and sake selection (80 to 100 labels, many of them limited–release offerings). In Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, co–owner and bartender Matt Boyle opened the bar Dear Friend and lobbied the provincial government for more industry support, including allowing sales of pre–mixed, to–go cocktails. Edmonton’s El Beso offers pre–batched cocktails to go, while Montreal’s Atwater Cocktail Club sells make–at–home cocktail kits.
Pop–ups for days
Temporary, semi–secret and built for fun, the pop–up model was perfect for uncertain pandemic times. Some sprang from the minds of accomplished but out–of–work chefs, others introduced new faces to the dining scene. At Montreal’s Salle Climatisée, now a permanent resto, three pals who worked at Maison Publique lavished expert technique on locally sourced foods (kohlrabi, trout, roe and lovage), while home cook Evy Mendes launched Canteen Toca Toca to bring the city vegan West African fare. Toronto’s Crosley’s, from two alumni of the late Brother’s Food and Wine, began on the premises of Bar Piquette and was such a success it now has its own home on Ossington. In Winnipeg, chef/farmer Renée Girard popped up online, offering superior pastas and sauces for pick up at Made By Paste, chef Tyrone Welchinski began making and selling charcuterie and pantry goods at Welchinski’s Meats, and Japanese sandos arrived in the city courtesy of Moshi Moshi. In Saskatoon, Rachel Smith transformed her farmers’ market stall into the brick–and–mortar Bannock Express.
Multi–course takeout meals and meal kits
It wasn’t just takeout burgers and pizza that boomed during our long global crisis, it was also multi–course takeout meals and meal kits from even the fanciest of chefs. Patrick Kriss from Alo Food Group offered five–course takeout tasting menus to go. His family–style meals included dishes like rack of lamb and white asparagus (with optional add–ons) delivered to up to 600 people a week. Alex Chen of Vancouver’s Boulevard Kitchen and Oyster Bar offered meal–kit ingredients along with a video tutorial for his lobster bisque and slow–roasted ribeye. In Toronto, Tanto offers changing weekly multi–course menu delivery featuring specialties from its wood–burning grill, with detailed heating and serving instructions, while Dustin Gallagher and partner Flo Leung’s Noble House routinely send out family style meals that range from mains of prime rib to fried chicken.
With the pandemic boom in food delivery came ghost kitchens – food prep operations without a storefront that sell primarily online. The term is used rather loosely, so we’re including small startups that offer on–site pickups, too. In Winnipeg, Cloe Welchinski debuted killer crullers at the hit bakery Crumb Queen, while in Toronto, laid off advertising company employee Wesley Altuna launched his Filipino takeout Bawang, featuring home–style grub like sabaw (egg noodles, bok choy, lechón, crispy shallots in a tamarind broth) and beef short ribs estofado in a caramelized pineapple and coke sauce. Montreal’s Bukovina serves Ukrainian comfort food (cabbage rolls, vareniki, borscht) that is available for delivery or pickup in Verdun or Côte Saint–Luc.