Don't expect restaurant menus to be the same as they were before the pandemicor even one month ago.

By Regan Stephens
April 21, 2021
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Last March, Danny Lee was about to reformat the menu for the spring season at Anju, one of the three restaurants he co-owns in Washington, D.C. It would be the chef's first substantial menu change since the restaurant opened a few months prior.

"Then the pandemic hit, and we had to, overnight, reformat our plans and create a menu that could travel well for takeout," he said. A little over a year later, with the restaurant at 25-percent indoor capacity and outdoor seating offered on a small patio, they're finally serving guests in person again, but his menu strategy has shifted.

There's still a large focus on dishes that travel well, yes, but also a growing number of specialty dishes meant to be enjoyed in-house, including Lee's version of hwedupbap—seasoned rice topped with house-cured salmon, tobiko, and a pineapple chojang. That's just one example of how chefs are reconsidering their menus to account for this moment.

restaurant menu
Credit: Getty Images / Mint Images RF

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the dining industry to change in countless ways this past year, and the changes are still coming. Sure, restaurants look different than they did last year, but they also look different than they did last month. As the pandemic continues to evolve—local and state health departments release new guidelines, the weather changes, and restaurant's face an unprecedented dearth of workers—the industry has had to continue adapting. Diners can see it in the "streeteries" and in the sparsely-arranged tables. They can also see it on restaurant menus.

"Labor shortages and crazy weather have made sourcing very difficult, so we have learned to be very flexible across the board," said Fredo Nogueria, chef-partner at Vals in New Orleans. "This year has been a challenge on so many levels, and it has forced me to be creative in different ways." Nogueria has turned to recipes that freeze well as a starting point for several dishes, like the versatile pâte à choux.

"We can have a person come one morning and make a batch of Parisian gnocchi and profiteroles, chill them, freeze them, and utilize them all week for two very different dishes that are derived from the same recipe, and take no time to prep and freeze remarkably well," said Nogueria.

From the proliferation of prix-fixe menus to an uptick in daily specials, chefs around the country weigh in on how—and why—their menus look different right now.

Menus are optimized for shorter visits

"With limited seating capacity at restaurants, the turnaround time of a table is top of mind, so we have engineered the menu to be a one-and-a-half to two-hour experience. Additionally, the dishes that are currently being offered have been simplified to help the kitchen be more efficient, focusing on showcasing the technique of excellent cooking to allow guests to understand the quality of the product. These two changes allow for the restaurant to have efficient service, without sacrificing the experience of fine dining." —Shaun Hergatt, chef and owner of Vestry in New York City

"We've been offering the tasting menu-only option since 2015, but we certainly had more courses pre-Covid. In an effort to get people in and out within a two-hour time frame, we condensed the menu to six courses. It still gives us room for creative freedom, but it allows us enough time to clean, sanitize, and reset tables without creating a bottleneck of guests at the front door." —Nicholas Elmi, chef and owner of Laurel and In the Valley in Philadelphia, and Lark and The Landing in Bala Cynwyd, PA

They're also smaller and more focused

"Our menus have become tighter with fewer options because we have fewer seats which means fewer guests and less revenue to cover our expenses. Due to this, all restaurants need to keep labor costs down. That means we have fewer people in the kitchen, so we need to pare down the menu." —Michael Schulson, chef and owner of Schulson Collective in Philadelphia

"Keeping things simple was a big part of my overall plan while continuing to focus on technique, executions, and overall flavor." —Ricardo Jarquin, executive chef of The St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort in Miami Beach

Small, shareable plates are out; entrées are in

"I realized early on that our menus—which always had a section of items meant to be shared —had to be changed to items meant for one." —Marcie Turney, chef and co-owner of Safran Turney Hospitality

"As patrons are getting more comfortable dining out, but still not fully 'back to normal,' our menu has changed from majority small plates to adding larger entree-style portions. We've come to find out that people are eager to dine out but still want to limit exposure, so they are going out less but wanting more out of their experience." —Kraig Hansen, executive chef of Fable Lounge in Nashville

Supply chain issues mean lots of substitutions

"At this stage in the pandemic with vaccines ramping up and people feeling more comfortable to dine in, I've faced numerous challenges accessing ingredients that are typically available. We've had to create backup plans just in case suppliers aren't able to get items into our hands. For instance, when I special ordered watercress a couple of weeks out for a wine dinner and it failed to be available in time, I sourced what I could locally and supplemented with arugula. It has pushed us to be creative with how we craft menus and to be flexible with substitutions." —Shannon Goforth, executive chef of Bradford House in Oklahoma City

They're heavy on spring ingredients

"Spring is always one of the most exciting and energizing times of our year, especially when composing a menu. After a year that has felt like one long winter, this spring's bounty feels particularly special. With the reemergence of diners and the weather finally warming up, our focus has been to create a menu enthusiastically celebrating seasonal produce such as ramps, spring peas and amazingly fragrant muscat grapes—all of which we missed out on last year. We strive to offer a diverse selection of items while not overwhelming guests with too many options. We currently offer two menus: à la carte and a full tasting (vegan and omnivore), which gives us the flexibility to consciously cross utilize items and present the essence of these wonderful, fleeting ingredients in their various forms." —Mary Attea, executive chef of The Musket Room in New York City

"I am very excited about spring ingredients, including the spring ramps, peas, asparagus, and nettles. These items bring me joy. The brightness of the seasons changing, coupled with the freshness of these ingredients and optimism for brighter days, warm my soul and remind me that cooking provides me with bright, hopeful moments." —Gerald Sombright, chef de cuisine of Knife & Spoon at The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes

Tasting menus are in

"Since reopening, we have moved away from our à la carte menu and strictly offer a tasting menu using reservations only. This has allowed us the opportunity to streamline our menu and ordering, as well as minimize any waste. It has also allowed us to hire back a full staff because we know the exact number of covers we will do each night." —Vinson Petrillo, executive chef of Zero Restaurant + Bar in Charleston, SC

"We are definitely keeping a pre-fixe menu for now, and keeping it smaller. A set menu offers more stability, which is something we are craving right now. Until we can find more staff, we can't add many more tables.  So, we are still dependent on to-go and a pre-fixe menu." —Rose Previte, owner of Maydan and Compass Rose in Washington, DC

Menus are doubling down on local, easily accessible produce

"The hotel now grows all herbs on property, a change from pre-pandemic. We utilize fruit directly from our citrus trees, which is picked daily and juiced, while the flowers were harvested for citrus blossom oil that is used on several of our dishes throughout the hotel's food and beverage outlets. Our barrel cactus fruit and prickly pear is foraged daily when in season by our chefs; it's not unusual to see a number of white chef coats running up and down the road each morning with tongs, ready to pick the cactus! Creative sourcing, such as shopping for ingredients at local and smaller businesses is the new normal." —Emily Dillport, executive chef at The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain in Arizona

"People are looking for menus that offer some return to normalcy. Local ingredients that lend themselves to shared plates are a great segue but the market is still reeling from availability concerns. It's a perfect time to support local farmers while looking for what's usually readily accessible." —Jordan Hayes, executive chef of  The Monogram Lounge and The Hey! Hey! Club at J. Rieger & Co. in Kansas City, MO

"We opened a brand new restaurant during the pandemic and intentionally did so slowly to make sure we could keep up with the precautions and product availability. Luckily, we were able to lean on our farm for produce, but even with that, we had to limit our menu due to scarcity and limited staff. Our menu still isn't built out to its fullest potential, but we're slowly getting there as things open up and we're able to accommodate more guests." —Sonya Cote, chef and owner of Store House Market + Eatery in Bastrop, Texas

"The trend in menu design is moving towards smaller, boutique-style menus with even more of a focus on locally sourced products than before. This is driven by the shortage of staff, the likes of which I have never seen in my 35-year-tenure, and the inconsistencies in the food supply chain. We are seeing shortages in everything we use from corn starch to fresh chicken" —Rich Hudson, executive chef of Datz in Florida

There are more daily specials

"As a result of the pandemic, Piccalilli's focus has recently shifted to offering a smaller, tighter menu while offering daily specials, allowing Piccalilli to have the flexibility to work with more high-quality, less shelf-stable ingredients. This allows us to work more creatively while not committing to any particular dish as a permanent menu item." —Macks Collins, chef and co-owner of Piccalilli in Los Angeles

Many are emphasizing "special occasion food"

"We've found our diners are actually ordering the more unique and more technique-based items on our menu. So many people have mastered certain recipes at home, that it feels like special to go to a restaurant and order a dish that they could easily replicate. We're seeing an uptick in orders for dishes like our guinea hen and Hudson Valley foie gras terrine, octopus sopressata and sea bream. We're innovating on new menu items that really showcase more advanced cooking methods to appeal to those kinds of diners." —Liz Benno, operations manager at Leonelli Restaurant & Bar in New York City

"We have seen a huge increase in celebratory items, ie, we have had a 300% increase with our caviar sales. I feel myself and everyone wants to get to a place where we can celebrate together!" —Dustin Valette, executive chef of Valette in Healdsburg, CA

"With the recent influx of dining reservations at Sushi Note, we have an opportunity to surprise loyal patrons and new guests with exciting ingredients not previously incorporated into our sushi offerings, such as soremame (broad bean or fava bean) and caviar. Regulars tend to stick to what they know, so this "reopening" allowed us to experiment with unique flavors and elevate the entire dining experience." —Kiminobu Saito, chef of Sushi Note in Los Angeles, CA

"Before the pandemic, guests may have gotten drinks at one place, a meal at another, and dessert at a final location, but now they make one reservation for one place and just want to celebrate getting out of the house with the full experience. They want to make the most out of their reservation, because they are just going out once a month instead of three or four times a week, and our menu reflects that to welcome them back into the restaurant." —Kraig Hansen, executive chef of Fable Lounge in Nashville