ST. LOUIS — When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and forced restaurants to close their dining room doors, food to-go became the go-to option for a lot of businesses.
That was great for the restaurant whose “meat and potatoes” business models focused on burgers, sandwiches, tacos and other items that are easy to eat.
That wasn’t so great for the “special occasion” kind of restaurants that rely on multicourse meals, complicated cocktails and a moody, cozy environment that’s cooked into the dining out experience.
Try putting together melon with whipped ricotta and gooseberry, a squash soup with tomato salad and cornbread and a juicy chicken breast with hominy, black trumpets and fried onion … all in a cardboard box.
Plating just isn’t the same. And it sure doesn’t taste as good when it gets delivered to your house rather than straight from the restaurant kitchen to your table.
Dining by the dashboard
COVID-19 has required chefs to get creative. Something Rob Connoley is no stranger to. The James Beard Award semifinalist’s Midtown restaurant Bulrush specializes in Ozark cuisine – as in, all of their ingredients have to be something that can grow or be found naturally nearby.
“We don’t dabble in anything here. We delve deep in everything we do,” Connoley told Abby Llorico for an episode of the Abby Eats St. Louis podcast.
That’s why he and his Bulrush staff didn’t settle for the take-out family meals model they adopted at the beginning of the pandemic.
“For my staff, that's just not what we're wired for. We're a fine dining restaurant. And so I just kept thinking, why are we doing second best? Why are we doing Plan B? We need to really rethink this,” the chef said.
When he opened Bulrush in 2019, Connoley told the Abby Eats St. Louis team he wanted to redefine what fine dining looks like. He didn’t intend on a global pandemic forcing his hand in such a dramatic way.
To help innovate the future of fine dining, Connoley looked to the past. The Bulrush team created a park-and-dine experience similar to what you can do these days at Sonic Drive-In.
On Friday and Saturday nights, diners pull up and get waited on inside their car. Connoley has been getting a kick out of how creative some diners are for their date nights by the dashboard.
“We had a car, they texted us and said, ‘Hey, can we bring a table and sit in the back of our car?’ And I'm like, I didn't quite know what that was going to look like for them. Well, they had one short-legged Japanese-style table in the back of a Subaru Outback,” Connoley described. “And then a few cars later, there was somebody who brought the table and chairs and put it on the sidewalk. And then someone else came and they had flowers on their dashboard. And someone else set up a hatchback with a blanket in the back and they had a candelabra and flowers. I'm like, I love this.”
Since then, he’s seen everything from a VW van to even a limo pull up in front of the restaurant on Washington Avenue.
Chef Rob also livestreams the kitchen, so diners can watch the team prepare and plate their courses.
“It’s unfiltered. We wanted to make sure you had all sorts of ways to experience what you would have had if you were sitting in the dining room,” he said.
A menu refresh
Pre-pandemic, the intimate dining room at iNDO was always packed and reservations were tough to come by.
“I definitely would have thought of iNDO as a special occasion kind of restaurant,” Chef Nick Bognar told 5 On Your Side. “And we’re a small restaurant too, so that meant we were often booked out.”
Bognar was fresh off two James Beard Award semifinalist nominations when his fine-dining spot in the Botanical Heights neighborhood was forced to close its doors.
After two months, the iNDO team got cooking again in the kitchen, offering a limited menu for curbside pickup.
But that’s not the business model iNDO was built for. For a special occasion restaurant, there are only so many times people want to order an expensive meal to eat in their own dining rooms.
So, Bognar opted to temporarily switch up the menu to offer Asian street food instead – bringing down the price to reach more people more often.
“When it comes to to-go, it’s like, we’re going to have to bring that price point down a little bit to kind of match everybody’s value,” Bognar said. “And I think that this is going to be very high value for what you get and at the same time fun and interesting and fresh.”
And the new concept was a hit. iNDO sold out of its new street food menu within hours on the day it debuted.
Feed your soul
For Chef Connoley, reinventing the fine dining scene isn’t just about giving people a new experience. It’s about giving them something to celebrate and a reason to smile.
“There’s so much pain and hurt in the world … To me, that's why you need to go out and celebrate,” Connoley said. “It doesn't matter if it's here or somewhere else. It doesn't even matter if it's a restaurant versus going camping or going to an art museum. You gotta get out. You got to break free from this heavy blanket that's weighing you down. Otherwise, you're going to suffocate and, you know, this is a long game here, and you have to take care of yourself in whatever way feeds your soul. Some people, they're not all right with it, but other people, they're going to put the table in the back of their Subaru Outback and have one hell of a night.”
This story is a companion piece to the Abby Eats St. Louis podcast episode called “Everything is fine, nothing is fine”. You can download the episode for free and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We've included links below to some of the most popular podcast platforms.