The Future of Restaurants

Restaurants are much more than places where we feed ourselves, soothe our souls, and mark life’s big moments. They are the backbones of our communities. And they are worth fighting for. We hope we can all eat in their dining rooms, together, one day soon.
By Food & Wine Editors
June 16, 2020

What do you miss most about restaurants right now? I miss the anticipation, the hum, the smells, the glow. I miss how restaurants restore me, whether it’s tacos at a picnic table after a five-and-a-half-hour flight to LAX or a dozen oysters at the counter of my local after work. Most of all, I miss the hospitality of restaurant people, their generosity.                                     

This spring, I witnessed that big-hearted spirit more than ever, as food industry leaders met the pandemic with acts of heroism: Chefs turned their restaurants into community kitchens; spirits manufacturers distilled hand sanitizer in addition to vodka. Thousands came up with new business plans literally overnight. More recently, as waves of protests against systemic racism and police brutality roiled the nation in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, restaurants stepped up again, throwing their support behind Black Lives Matter through supporting Black-owned businesses, donating to racial justice organizations, and feeding protestors

Yet in spite of all the scrappy innovation and activism, the state of the nearly $1 trillion restaurant economy—one that makes up an estimated 4% of America’s GDP and employs 15.6 million people—remains unstable. While the dimmer lights slowly turn back on in some states along with new restrictions for dining in, more than 6 million restaurant workers remain unemployed. Some of your favorite places won’t reopen.                                             

What happens to them impacts us all. Restaurants are a foundation of the American economy. So what’s the way forward out of this mess? And what will restaurants look like on the other side? We found hope in the 2020 class of Food & Wine Best New Chefs—ten talents who make some of the sharpest, most forward-thinking, and most satisfying food in America. For 32 years, the accolade has celebrated not only the best cooking of the day, but also the culinary leaders of tomorrow. This year’s class, the first selected by Restaurant Editor Khushbu Shah, is no different. We heard a rallying cry from Best New Chef Tavel Bristol-Joseph, co-owner and executive pastry chef at five Austin restaurants, who sees the challenges facing his generation as an opportunity to lead the industry forward: “I don’t want to adapt to the change,” he told us. “I want to be the change.”     

Food & Wine is partnering with Southern Smoke Foundation to help raise money for restaurant workers around the country who are in crisis. Please consider making a donation today.  

Let’s not waste the lessons that adversity teaches us. Let’s come out of this crisis with a new understanding of the true costs of operating the restaurants we miss. Let’s show more hospitality to the people who cook for us and the people who serve us. Let’s start there.

The future of restaurants will depend on all of us. 

—Hunter Lewis, Editor in Chief         

Credit: First Row: Gary He / Michael Piazza / Cedric Angeles Second Row: Cedric Angeles / Cedric Angeles / Aubrie Pick / Jason Varney Third Row: Catherine Sareini / Cedric Angeles / Gary He

This year’s class of Food & Wine Best New Chefs will shape the future. They are resilient and brilliant, thoughtful and caring. They are leading their teams through unprecedented circumstances, navigating choppy waters with sheer determination and optimism as their compass. They are the people who not only will help rebuild their shattered industry, but also will eventually help it thrive in new ways—through their cooking, their resolve, and their vision for what a more equitable future in restaurants might look like. Read More.

Credit: Aubrie Pick

It was deeply important to me, in my first year as a restaurant editor, to expand the definition of what gets to count as a “best new restaurant.” The idea that a restaurant had to be a place with four walls, a front door, and daily hours felt limiting. It also didn’t feel equitable. Not everyone can afford to open a brick-and-mortar spot. Not everyone wants to. But to ignore the creativity and sheer flavor that comes out of food stands, pop-ups, and trucks felt like a giant missed opportunity. As long as a concept was regularly accessible by diners, it was fair game. Read More.

Credit: Abbey Lossing

COVID-19 has altered the very nature of human, communal interaction in ways that threaten to erase the essence of the most important African American–led restaurants in the country. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018, only 17% of chefs and head cooks were Black. In Chicago, Erick Williams’ focus on hiring and mentoring fellow African Americans at Virtue has been key to his success. In Savannah, Georgia, The Grey, a 2019 F&W World’s Best Restaurant, plays a core role in bridging the deep cultural divide in America during a time of profound national division. The potential shuttering of restaurants like theirs that are driven by history, homage, and humility, instead of by money, fame, and the thirst to scale, causes irrevocable damage to their communities­, and to the future of American cuisine. Read More.

Credit: Miodrag Ignjatovic / Getty Images

For too long the food industry has been willing to sustain itself on Black labor while doing absolutely nothing to address the lack of African Americans in positions of leadership. There are few Black executive chefs, general managers, or sommeliers helping run the leading restaurants in Atlanta, and it’s not because Black folks somehow lack the talent. Read More.

Credit: Aubrie Pick / Cedric Angeles / Gary He / Cedric Angeles / Catherine Sareini

The restaurant industry is one of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. It seemed almost overnight that bustling dining rooms were shut down and sommeliers swapped bottles of wine for bottles of hand sanitizer. If a restaurant remained open, they were forced to switch to take-out and delivery only models, attempting to survive, while the government failed to pass specific measures to help save them. The industry will soon attempt to begin the monumental task of rebuilding itself. We asked this year’s class of Best New Chefs, the culinary leaders of tomorrow, to share their hopes for the future of the restaurant industry. Read More.

Credit: Mint Images / Getty Images

We spoke with dozens of chefs and restaurant owners about what comes next. Thoughts ranged from the practical—disposable menus, added cleaning protocols, increased takeout options—to bigger picture revisions, like enhanced safety nets for restaurant workers and broader acceptance of no-tipping policies. Read More.

Leyenda, a bar in Brooklyn, NY.
| Credit: Courtesy of Leyenda

As it becomes ever more clear that there’s no going back to the way things were, the American restaurant and bar industry is learning how to navigate a new reopening path. This means unprecedented measures—a regularly updated CDC page cites installation of barriers, staggered usage of spaces, and posted signage. And for some, it also means confronting the longstanding labor injustices that were laid bare as venues laid off entire teams. By now, some 40 million Americans, including many in the hospitality space, have sought unemployment benefits. Read More.

Credit: Adobe Stock

As states begin to consider reopening struggling restaurants for dine-in, operators are reimagining the entire restaurant landscape, hoping to safely accommodate Americans hungry for normalcy in the form of a nice night out for dinner after months of just takeout and delivery. But for customers to return to restaurants, they’ll need to feel safe from unacceptable health risks. Read More.

Credit: Abbey Lossing

At the beginning of 2020, asking the question, “What will ‘restaurant’ mean in five years?” was usually an exercise in looking for hot food trends or tracking an up-and-coming chef. Today, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, that discussion is existential. We haven’t even started to lay the new foundations, but somewhere there is a young chef dreaming of opening her own restaurant. Read More.

Credit: Abbey Lossing

Technology alone won’t rebuild restaurants in the future, but new and thoughtful technology can make them stronger. As we rethink business models now, trading the old status quo for an unknown future, restaurants will need to make careful decisions about the tech they use—and more importantly, the tech they don’t. Read More.

Credit: Abbey Lossing

Almost overnight, restaurants across the country closed their doors. Millions of hospitality teams were laid off, and workers found themselves without a way to earn a living at home or promises of jobs to return to. In this unprecedented crisis, it became clear that lawmakers did not realize what was really at stake: The risk of structural unemployment, which could trigger a depression, and the loss of independent restaurants that are core to our cultural fabric. Read More.