Pantry Goods Take Center Stage at Restaurants This Winter

As dining rooms go dark, chefs are resuming specialty grocery operations that meet diners halfway.

Photo: Adam Robb

Bessou, Maiko Kyogoku's four-year-old NoHo izakaya, was the first restaurant I shopped for groceries last spring,.

Her takeaway offerings were typical of so many neighborhood restaurants in March, which had all the markings of a fire sale—premium udon noodles, marinated black garlic chicken by the pound, milk bread by the bag, dan dan sauce by the quart, all priced at a fraction of what she'd charge to prepare it.

The food lasted days, not weeks, and in that time I worried my purchase might outlast the restaurant itself.

"We needed to do something with the food," Kyogoku recalled. "We'd been forced to shut down our two locations and were left with two walk-ins worth of food." There was no way she could make back the money spent on so much unused food, so after donating to the Food Education Fund, and driving around the city dropping off care packages on the doorsteps of their most loyal patrons, she began selling whatever was left.

The food lasted me days, not weeks, and in that time I worried my purchase might outlast the restaurant itself, but then Bessou reopened as a frozen food emporium. "I wanted to reopen and give my staff back their jobs, but I didn't think it was practical to focus on fresh, perishable foods and worry about having to empty those walk-ins out again," Kyogoku said.

Over the past few months, Bessou showed some signs of confidence, resuming restaurant takeout and delivery, building out a proper grocery portal on their website, and modestly raising their prices. It was still a sweet spot for the diner who didn't pick up major home-cooking ambitions during the first lockdown, who didn't adapt to outdoor dining, and whose weekly unemployment checks were less than the price of a takeaway Eleven Madison Park chicken dinner. For $3, you could walk to your favorite restaurant and pick up a pint of frozen rice. It was in no way practical. It wasn't a meal kit; it was barely a meal. But it helped sustain this sense and muscle memory of dining out.

With the close of indoor dining at the start of December and a snow storm imminent, however, Kyogoku again halted restaurant service over the weekend, to focus on more urgent personal commitments—both she and her chef are due to give birth in January.

Yet there are countless restaurants, across New York and the country, that continue to meet diners halfway, reinvesting in more curated grocery experiences, whether it's a $4 pound bag of housemade breadcrumbs "of exceptional texture and flavor" from Bread & Salt in Jersey City, or specialty items at Ludo Lefebvre's Le Petit Trois Goods, which has seen its customers cravings shift from yeast back in April to more rarefied goods like Bordier butter and Big Mec kits since its December reopening.

Even Eleven Madison Park joined suit, suddenly retailing the $18 airtight jar of granola that once capped a $1500 night out. (The restaurant hasn't fully bowed to proletariat gourmands yet. Customers are required to purchase a complete meal before they can add on a bottle of black truffle milk punch.)

Alto Paradiso
Adam Robb

By July, I invested in exactly one meal box. I chose a $155 kit from Altro Paradiso in SoHo, chef Ignacio Mattos' thriving outdoor hub for the art crowd that lived west of Lucien, south of Sant Ambroeus, but north of The Odeon—and in the Hamptons, where so many of the restaurant's sausages hit the grill. The contents of the box provided about a meal and a half for two, with some assorted canisters of condiment ephemera leftover that I hoped to use before they turned. Once I realized the preserved lemons in olive oil were the missing ingredient in a perfect gin and tonic, I wished I could buy only them.

In recent days, my wish was granted. Restaurants with once pricey packages were scaling down and pricing the components of meal kits à la carte. It's not because the art world is suddenly broke, but because Mattos envisioned diners picking up a little something off the shelf on the way out the door. (It was bad luck that indoor dining ended days later, but everything from confit tomatoes to pork ragù remains available à la carte for pick-up and delivery.)

A few blocks away on Macdougal Street, Dame Deli & Bottle Shop is the latest incarnation of Ed Syzmanski's and Patricia Howard's popular fish and chips spot, which thrived throughout the summer, in part due to the spillover of next door Dante's sidewalk bar scene. Once winter came, and with new, more cumbersome regulations in place for on-street seating, Dame was reinvented for the winter as a fish and chip shop cum market occupying the former Abigail's Kitchen.

Adam Robb

Behind the makeshift paper sign in the window you'll find the only place in New York displaying a ripe abundance of photo-ready fruit and vegetables from Natoora, a British produce wholesaler that opened up its app to the public earlier in the year, for at-home delivery. In fact, Dame is the spitting image of Natoora's own London shops that lurk in the British capital's wealthiest neighborhoods, but here it's possible to find saffron potted shrimp, pear and persimmon butter, heirloom eggs, and fresh tortillas from Yellow Rose, and pastries from Mel Bakery in the East Village, all priced under $10.

The downside for Dame 2.0 are the low margins groceries offer versus restaurants, but Syzmanski sees opportunity in this.

"This is going to lay the foundation for next door," he said, referring to the fine-dining restaurant the pair are opening on the other side of the pandemic. "Say something comes out really delicious, like the squid in tomato oil—we're not going to serve that in a jar there, because we want to charge $18 for it, but we might serve it in a dish in some other sense. It's a luxury very few chefs have, that we can recipe test for the future. Normally you have to spend $10,000 and three weeks to test dishes, but now we can test dishes and sell them."

Dame doesn't have as wealthy a customer base as other restaurants curating grocery offerings, but what started as a commitment this summer to donate its profits to charity—over $20,000 was raised for groups including the NAACP and Harlem Grown—the deli exists in part to keep employed through the winter months the skeleton crew who made that success possible.

Despite the snowfall, Manhattan restaurants continue to benefit from foot traffic in a way that restaurants in other cities don't. At Fork, in Philadelphia, the special occasion centerpiece of Ellen Yin's and Eli Kulp's High Street Hospitality Group, the success of their seasonal cooking has long depended on a mix of tourists visiting historic Old City, the business lunch crowd, and suburban date nights. By November, as indoor dining ceased, Yin knew her outdoor dining business was over.

"If it's snowing, windy, raining, no one wants to eat outside anymore," she said. So she found a way to make the Fork experience deliverable, with Fork Etc, breaking up the $145 champagne-braised chicken dinner boxes she delivers to Bucks and Montgomery counties, to pints and small portions for city dwellers, starting at just $5 for a four-pack of Parker house rolls.

Greg Vernick got an early jump on his retail business, opening Vernick Wine & Grocery next to Vernick Food & Drink back in March. Prior to COVID-19, the space was mostly used for private events, but with that business interrupted, he's ramped up his housemade offerings bolstered by an expansive inexpensive selection of soups and ice creams, and it's proven itself as an invaluable corridor for the chef to welcome guests back through his doors again. It's also a way to pay back past Vernick employees who've gone on to launch their own brands, including Coddiwomple Canning & Trinh Eats.

The grocery programs are some small consolation for a headache both restaurant groups have been facing – Yin and Kulp's High Street on Market was forced to move, and High Street on Hudson is now hosting another restaurant's pop-up to keep its doors open, while Vernick Fish was forced to close as quickly as it reopened—but if there's one comfort that's become universal for these restaurants' pantry programs, it's knowing they've found a new way to feature in their customers' lives, buoyed by a mutual understanding that everybody's gotta eat.

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