It takes a lot of blind faith and courage to open a restaurant or bar in good times; it also takes a strong stomach and more than a touch of crazy. My first opening, as a 23-year-old first-time general manager, was a leap into the unknown—luckily blessed by ignorance. Fifty plus openings later, I know how hard it is, how much is at risk, and how high the failure rate is.
To open in the middle of a worldwide pandemic is nothing short of heroic. Whether driven by design, desperation, or a dream—or all three—owners and chefs haven’t stopped moving forward, creating new concepts while risking everything as they continue to open new restaurants and bars around the country.
“We were fucked,” admits Neal Bodenheimer, a partner in Vals, a casual New Orleans Mexican restaurant, “once COVID-19 hit. We had been working on Vals for five years; it was troubled from the start and was way over budget and out of cash. It felt doomed. If we didn’t open soon, we’d never open. Only one word could accurately express what I felt—dread.” In a self-described “not particularly good place,” Neal shared his greatest fears with his wife—that Vals might never open and that they were at risk of losing their other businesses, Cure and Cane & Table, as well.
Out of that hard conversation came the joint decision to not give up. “We agreed to solve problems, one by one,” says Bodenheimer, “and that gave us momentum as we began to put up a few small wins.” Each small win—a permit or a strong hire—built momentum and growing excitement right up through Vals’ successful opening. Thrilled by the neighborhood’s response, Bodenheimer was amazed to see how badly people wanted to dine out and be taken care of after being deprived for several weeks.
Small wins, momentum, and fierce competitive juices fuel every opening but each one begins with a vision. “It was always our dream,” says Faye Chen, co-founder of Double Chicken Please (DCP), a cocktail bar scheduled to open in late-October, “to leave China and open a bar in New York City. It’s such a competitive city.” But first, due to the challenge of finding the right space in New York and all the red tape that comes with it, Chen and her co-founder and fellow bartender, GN Chan, took DCP on the road.
Converting a yellow van into a pop-up mobile bar, they traveled to Nashville, New Orleans, and other cities to gain a better understanding of the American cocktail lover. Since August, the yellow van has been parked in Brooklyn as they put the finishing touches on a menu that Chen describes as “hacking design”—a creative process in which they take inspiration from classic dishes and transform them into cocktails like the whiskey-based Red Eye Gravy or the rum-driven Japanese Cold Ramen.
For chef Rob McDaniel and his wife Emily, co-owners of the restaurant Helen, their dream received a sign on March 14, 2018. Taking a break between services, McDaniel flipped his Bible open to Deuteronomy 1:6 and knew that it was time:
“The Lord our God spake unto us in Horeb, saying, Ye have dwelt long enough in this mount.”
While his faith has sustained McDaniel on the journey to opening Helen—a food memory of and tribute to his grandmother’s indoor grill and his Alabama roots, which opened August 25 in Birmingham, Alabama—he credits his team for being his rock. “Trust in each other in the time of COVID-19 is key,” says McDaniel. “It’s a crazy business in good times but, right now, to have good people who have your back is amazing.”
Blessed with a large restaurant of 170 seats and strong initial cover counts, he is confident that even at the current state-mandated 50 percent occupancy he can make the numbers work. “What sucks,” he says, “is that with all of us being careful and wearing masks, I can’t see any of my team’s smiles.” Now occasionally, after a solid shift, McDaniel gathers the team to sit down, take off their masks and socially distance over a cold beer so that he can enjoy their smiles again.
“It’s really difficult to social distance in a kitchen,” says Justin Smillie, former chef of the now shuttered Upland in New York City and current “parking lot and snack bar chef” at the Marram Hotel in Montauk. “We tried face shields for a day. They didn’t work, so we switched to masks and moved as much cooking outside into the parking lot as possible.” Thanks to two campfire grills, two smokers, and a little luck, Smillie is busy doing what he loves while employing five people who were out of work.
With a beach location flanked by surf breaks and the freedom of cooking without a menu, Smillie has improvised with cast-iron pizzas and been inspired by whatever shows up each morning—whether it be pristine yellow fin tuna or sweet Jimmy Nardello peppers.
“This was supposed to be a pop-up by the Argentine chef Fernando Trocca but, due to the pandemic, he couldn’t travel to New York,” says Smillie. “We stepped in only a week before opening and have been slammed ever since. The timing worked out great as New York City emptied out, and everyone wants to eat outside.”
Once word got out that Smillie was out east, he was happy to see many of his NYC customers show up. He is eager to return to the city this fall and greet them again at Il Buco Alimentari but in the meantime, he has taken surfing back up. “Surfing is so much fucking fun,” admits Smillie, “and Montauk is such a magical place, with dolphins and whales just offshore; it’s going to be hard to leave.”
Out west in San Francisco, with his bar closed, accepting life at a standstill was not an option for Josh Harris, owner of the award-winning bar Trick Dog. “We had to pay the rent, so why not test something new” says Harris. “Something creative and entrepreneurial that might be scalable about our brand.”
The first obstacle was Trick Dog’s acclaim as a rowdy and raucous bar with great cocktails. That kind of energy wasn’t scalable—nor was it replicable at 50 percent occupancy. Since keeping his guests and employees safe was his number one priority, Harris knew that the new concept had to be delivery and take-out only. He turned to his childhood memories of local burger and hot dog joints Bill’s Place, Clown Alley, and Doggie Diner for inspiration. “Then once we came up with the name Quik Dog,” says Harris, “it was bam—full steam ahead.”
Since opening on September 17, Harris is happy with the eight-item food menu, not surprised that the best-selling beverage pairing is a take-out bottle of Unión Mezcal and a six-pack of Jarritos Toronja, and very thankful that “in these dark times I’m committed to something creative that brings light to our days.”
Heroism, right now, is solving problems, keeping the faith, and doing whatever the hell else it takes to open the door on that very first day. All of us are leaping together—chefs, owners, staff, guests, and vendors. We’re trusting each other to stay safe and trying to bring light into each other’s lives, all the while dreaming, hoping, and praying that we come out the other side and can, once again, enjoy the smiles, the noise, the energy that comes with being in a packed bar or restaurant.