Whether gathering with friends over a meal, hosting a business brunch or falling in “like” across the table from that right swipe you made on a whim, there’s nothing quite like the experience of fine dining. When the pandemic forced Delaware establishments to close or reduce capacity the first time, many overcame incredible odds with fluid creativity to offer patrons a sense of normalcy during uncertain times. Some trends (is anything quite so convenient as curbside takeout?) might become part of the regular menu. So, which ones are here to stay?
While burgers and fries have traditionally served as the go-to takeout meal, fine-dining restaurants had to scramble to maintain their culinary vision while offering a dine-in-quality experience at home.
“There’s nothing wrong with burgers, but we [want] to stay true to who we are, making the best food we possibly can and creating an experience you won’t forget,” says chef Matthew Kern of Heirloom in Lewes.
One solution was to curate a special limited menu, which made preparation more manageable with a leaner kitchen staff and also helped reduce food waste.
“Restaurants are one of the best applicators of adaptation because we’re forced to do that on a regular basis,” Kern says. “We spend a lot of time in our kitchens focusing on how we can use different ingredients to create something special.”
Some dishes are more adaptable than others, adds Michael Stiglitz, co-owner at Two Stones Pub gastropub. He explains that since some gourmet staples like steak don’t travel well, chefs have had to come up with recipes, as well as creative packaging, to preserve texture and flavor.
“Takeout and mobile ordering will continue to force creative decisions,” Stiglitz says. “We’ll forgo old practices in favor of the [innovation] necessary for survival. We will all have to get especially creative with foods that travel well, because there’s only so much a container can do.”
Another pandemic-related trend is using healthier ingredients that benefit restaurants, patrons and the environment.
While it’s already tough to engineer menus around quality takeout, chefs are also challenged by less availability and accessibility to quality meats and produce. When shortages cropped up in the food supply chain, large-scale restaurant vendors had to both raise prices and require larger orders. Many restaurants already operating at reduced capacity and income couldn’t cover these higher costs, so they came up with a fresh idea: work with local farms, where they can place smaller orders at more affordable prices.
While this may not seem like an obvious benefit for patrons, consider that every time you dine out, you’re likely getting riper or healthier fare while also supporting the local economy and one of the hardest-hit industries over the last few years.
Restaurants and cafés already featuring farm-to-table dining were ahead of the trend. At Heirloom, for example, chef Kern has always relied on fresh, local fare to create his culinary works of art. “We make food that a lot of other people can’t,” he says. “We focus on how we can take these locally sourced ingredients and create something unique. I like to think that’s why we’re so successful, because we work so hard to make something different.”
Following suit are Fork + Flask in Rehoboth Beach, now sourcing its seafood locally, as well as Ciro Food & Drink and Ciro Forty Acres in Wilmington, who are working with Second Chances, an organic indoor farm that grows Delaware’s formerly incarcerated persons into “agripreneurs.”
In Delaware, al fresco dining conjures images of summertime—enjoying happy hour on a city terrace or a slow, waterside meal at the shore. In a region that experiences true winters (maybe not by a Mainer’s standards, but by our own), the colder months pose a challenge, however. Enter space heaters, an urban greenhouse and cozy (ventilated!) tenting.
There’s nothing wrong with burgers [to go], but we want to stay true to who we are, making the best food we possibly can and creating an experience you won’t forget.
—Chef Matthew Kern, Heirloom
In European countries like Norway—where midwinter typically sees temperatures in the 20s— outdoor dining is the norm year-round. Industrial space heaters and fire pits go a long way to keep an open-air space toasty, but Americans can also follow a simple rule from our Nordic friends: Dress warmly. (Think layers, wool, a windbreaker—whatever the weather warrants.) You’ll be surprised at how hygge a February meal outdoors (especially with a cocktail) can actually be.
Along with the science surrounding the novel coronavirus, adaptations to expand indoor dining to the “outdoors” have evolved at area establishments.
In downtown Wilmington, Bardea Food & Drink’s new Winter Garden extends dine-in seating to a tented space with carpet, furnishings and décor to match the Italian bistro’s interiors while heaters warm the air and ambiance. To increase ventilation and help minimize potential spread of the virus, there’s an inside fan, as well as flap doors that open at the front and back of the tent.
At the Hockessin location, Two Stones has transformed its outside patio with a pull-down awning that converts the space into “inside” dining, while Caffe Gelato in Newark recently invested in two small greenhouses that employ a HEPA filter to circulate the airflow (“70 cubic feet per minute in and out every six minutes or less,” to be exact, explains owner Ryan German, noting compliance with CDC guidelines).
If proper ventilation in tented spaces has you concerned, call in advance to reserve a table indoors, if the restaurant allows. And if eating out in public right now isn’t worth the risk, consider the emerging trends in takeout—innovative fare, served at your convenience—to enjoy a new experience in the comfort of your home.
A thoughtful, multicourse meal is one of the finest ways to feast—but for those who wish to prix-fixe in private, this tradition typically reserved for refined restaurants is now available to Delaware diners.
At La Fia Bistro in Wilmington, chef Dwain Kalup has devised an extensive, create-your-own three-course supper with choices like organic kale salad and seared Cheshire pork belly for the first course, grilled Bavette steak and truffled chicken roulade for the second, and sweet endings like sweet potato tarts and gingerbread mousse for dessert.
Creative ways to expand safer dining options have evolved along with the science surrounding the spread of COVID-19. Restaurants like Caffe Gelato, shown here, have erected greenhouses, while others utilize tents and industrial space heaters.
Additionally, such meal delivery services as Full Circle Foods are growing more popular as patrons crave ready-made meals delivered to their door with simple heating instructions.
Chef Robbie Jester is one of the owners behind the delivery service, bringing preprepared meals to households within 90 miles of Newark. Full Circle offers meal plans that allow customers to select entrées and sides on the days they need them. Jester cooked up the idea for the service before the pandemic when he saw people lose interest in higher-priced meal kits, like Blue Apron, but who were still craving healthy, ready-to-make meals. “It allows people to spend more time with their families,” he says, noting that orders have tripled since March.
From a taste of the laid-back Euro lifestyle to inventive fare and easier carryout, the last three seasons have lit a fire under culinary ingenuity—some ideas so good that even when this is all over, Delaware might hold onto this new way of dining.