The Big Idea: The Golden Age of Restaurants Shows Tarnish
For much of the past year, America’s restaurant scene was as rich, varied and exciting as it has ever been—a continuation of dining’s golden age. Our top 10 this year is a shining example of that culinary energy. We found chefs breathing new life into the seemingly stale tasting-menu format by making it more fun and interactive; we saw live-fire cooking approached with the precision of fine dining; and we were able to understand specific regions, such as the Levant, in a much deeper way than we had before. In mid-March, much of that thriving landscape came to a halt as the Covid-19 pandemic forced the industry to close. The sad truth is that many—some say up to 75 percent—of these independent restaurants will never reopen. This is the end of an era.
The Covid-19 shutdown laid bare the difficulties restaurants faced long before the pandemic arrived. Roiling beneath the surface of this period of inventiveness and creativity was a growing belief that the industry’s economic model was broken. The rising costs of food, labor and real estate were conspiring to reduce already thin margins even further. Add to the mix the growth of fast casual and third-party delivery apps, which had decreased traffic to dine-in establishments, and it is clear why restaurateurs have been feeling squeezed. Then Covid-19 robbed them of that last little bit of cushion that allowed them to keep operating.
What made these restaurants so frail in the face of this pandemic is also what made them so good. The best ones simply became more labor intensive. That reality calls to mind an old Julia Child quote about fine dining: “It’s so beautifully arranged on the plate—you know someone’s fingers have been all over it.” Chefs’ fingers became involved in every step of the process. Kitchen staffs foraged, fermented, made more in-house from scratch, sought out farmers to supply the perfect products and embraced an ethos of endless innovation. In contrast, the restaurants most able to absorb this shock to the system will be the ones using commodity products and relying on automated processes. They’re the antithesis of the restaurants we’ve come to love.
It may be the end of an era, but it’s not the end of the restaurant industry. We won’t lose the desire to break bread with friends and family outside of the home, and chefs won’t stop wanting to express themselves through food. So while there may be fewer in the immediate future, including the excellent Auburn in Los Angeles, which closed as we were planning to include it among our Best of the Best winners, exceptional restaurants will still exist—especially ones like our top 10, which combine delicious food and outstanding service in a way that will stand the test of time.