The pandemic could end the age of midpriced dining

Besha Rodell, The New York Times

Posted at Jul 29 2020 01:03 PM

Noodles dressed in housemade XO sauce and topped with a raw scarlet prawn and its roe at Lee Ho Fook in Melbourne on July 20, 2020. When Melbourne restaurants reopened after lockdown, owners got creative, and dinner got far more expensive. Kristoffer Paulsen, The New York Times

MELBOURNE, Australia — When Victor Liong reopened his restaurant on AC/DC Lane in Melbourne’s city center in June, after months of a coronavirus shutdown order, he carefully considered his options.

Since its opening in 2013, Lee Ho Fook had been a restaurant that could cater to just about any occasion. You could stop in at the small bar tucked into the ground floor for chicken cracklings and a cocktail. Or you could head upstairs to the dining room, where your options ran from modern Chinese small plates to a grand feast of a whole roast duck served with a star anise and cinnamon sauce.

But with government distancing restrictions and a precarious financial situation, the calculation of doing business was not the same as it had been before the pandemic. In fact, the closing compelled Liong to reassess everything.

What he landed on was totally different from the casual excellence for which he’d been known. While still offering a robust to-go menu of fan-favorite dishes, Lee Ho Fook became a tasting-menu restaurant where the price of admission is $160 per person.

“The mechanics of a tasting menu ensures a financial position that we can plan for,” Liong wrote in an email. “I never wanted to create such a restaurant, but I feel the previous model wasn’t exactly a winning model.”

Liong is not alone in his belief that this is the most viable way forward. Restaurant owners are desperately looking for a lifeline amid the limitations of takeout, delivery and spaced-out tables.

It was not long ago that eating out in a nice restaurant was widely derided as a pompous activity of the very wealthy. I absorbed this through pop culture, like the cartoons in my parents’ copies of The New Yorker, where the waiter and tablecloth provided immediate, class-conscious context. Back then, good food made by well-known chefs was expensive, available only to those with plenty of disposable income. It was considered inherently elitist.

People can, and do, debate endlessly about which factors over the last two decades have given restaurants their global cultural relevance, morphing from an indulgence for the rich into a shared obsession across many demographics. I’d argue that the advent of casual, creative, high-quality dining is what brought more food fanatics into the fold.

But even prepandemic, restaurants like Lee Ho Fook were only just scraping by. Profit margins were minuscule; any small disaster could sabotage years of work and a lifetime of literal and creative capital.

Melbourne’s food scene thrives primarily thanks to the casual gastronomy found in its cafes, pubs and wine bars. But I saw a distinct trend in the opposite direction as the restaurant industry emerged battered from months of closings. And this wealthy, creative, diverse city — with access to all kinds of fresh food — could be a bellwether for other cities around the world.

Victor Liong, owner of restaurant Lee Ho Fook, on AC/DC Lane in Melbourne’s city center on July 20, 2020. When Melbourne restaurants reopened after lockdown, owners got creative, and dinner got far more expensive. Kristoffer Paulsen, The New York Times

I have to admit that I wasn’t prepared for the meal I ate at Lee Ho Fook during our brief and wonderful respite from lockdown. My husband and I booked a table without knowing about the change in format, and what was meant to be a low-key Wednesday night dinner ended up costing us over $400.

It was also one of the best meals I’ve eaten in Melbourne. It showcased Liong’s talent in a way I’d been unable to grasp when he ran a much more casual restaurant. The pacing was beautiful, the progression of dishes flawless.

Now that we’re back in lockdown, my memories of that meal are helping me get through: noodles dressed in housemade XO sauce topped with a glistening, raw scarlet prawn and its roe; hot-and-sour Murray cod with fermented chile and drifts of herbs; a few slices of dry-aged slow-roasted duck with taro and caramelized onion soy rice. It was perfect.

Liong’s team even sent us home with a tiny gift bag, as is often the custom in expensive tasting-menu restaurants, with spiced macadamia nuts and a small bottle of bespoke hand sanitizer.

At a favorite neighborhood wine bar, Little Andorra, where I once would stop by the bar for a glass of Croatian wine and a plate of cured kingfish with smoked butter and basil, I now had to book and pay in advance for a full-course meal. At $60 per person for five courses and bread (wine was extra), it was an absolute bargain, but this visit fulfilled a vastly different role in my social and financial life than Little Andorra has in the past.

At the cocktail bar Black Pearl, the upstairs room was transformed on Saturday nights to accommodate sit-down diners. I paid $120 in advance for a fantastic meal cooked by the owners of Tipo 00, one of the city’s best Italian restaurants, along with an included series of spritzes made by the Black Pearl team.

It was a lovely example of the adaptability and creativity of the industry — a night that guaranteed social-distancing measures and provided a far more predictable stream of revenue than either business might achieve otherwise.

Restaurants around the world are facing multiple reckonings: how to remain open in the most economically challenging era of our lifetime; how to support and protect workers who are often among the most vulnerable in a society; how to move forward with a business model that actually makes sense.

In Melbourne, at least, I’m seeing more and more owners decide that food should be served either quickly and casually and cheaply, or in a format that is lengthy and expensive. The middle ground is falling away.

Perhaps the dream of excellent midpriced dining was just that, a dream.