Among all the adaptations restaurants will undergo when eased lockdown regulations finally allow businesses to open on July 4 (providing various conditions are met), one can’t help but wonder – what will happen to restaurant menus?
Not the physical menus – many restaurants have already laid out their plans to hand out disposable menus or send digital copies to diners prior to their visit – but those concepts fuelled by our penchant for help-yourself tapas, ‘small plates’, feasting platters and communal tables. Love them or hate them, such menus that promote a relaxed, casual style of dining have taken over from the classic service à la russe, or ‘Russian’ service, whereby dishes pre-plated into individual portions are delivered to the table sequentially. They are offered everywhere from slick city restaurants to familiar pub chains – and, of course, in the traditional Spanish, Turkish, Greek and Indian restaurants (the list goes on) from whose cuisines the concept of sharing food originated. And let’s not forget the Sunday carveries, all-you-can-eat buffets, salad stations and serve-yourself drinks facilities, which allow us to graze and guzzle at our own pace.
Coronavirus could change all this. With many restaurants putting in place measures that include new table layouts adhering to social distancing guidance (although the 2m rule is under revision, it is likely that a distancing rule in some form will still be in place when restaurants reopen in July, meaning canteen-style tables may be off the cards), masks and visors worn by waiting staff, online payment systems to reduce contact between customers and staff, and condiments taken off the table and kept by the pass, one could argue that the idea of plonking multiple small plates onto a table (“served when they’re ready”, as the mantra goes) for diners to share has had its day. Many of us may have been perfectly happy, pre-pandemic, to stick our forks into the same plate of seabass crudo as our pals – but now?
“The sharing notion will certainly be hit on the head,” predicts Tom Aikens, the chef and owner of Muse in Mayfair, a fine-dining restaurant which offered six- or ten-course tasting menus pre-lockdown, having opened in January this year. “A la carte will become the most popular option, though I think people wanting to eat in fine-dining establishments will definitely be looking toward tasting menus,” he argues. “We can offer a sense of safety for our diners, as they can come knowing they won’t be sharing any food, and the plates and cutlery will be refreshed frequently.” Whether customers can afford to eat out like they did pre-lockdown, however, is another matter.
For many people, an end to sharing plates might come as a relief. No more waiting politely for someone to scoop up the last scallop (served, inevitably, with one too few for all at the table to have an equal number), or awkwardly trying to slice a dumpling into three. “If Covid-19 hastens the demise of sharing plates then, to me, that’s a silver lining,” says Telegraph restaurant critic Kathryn Flett.
But, fads and fashions aside, restaurants serving cuisines that have the sharing concept at their heart may struggle to adhere to the new norms. Richard de la Cruz, head chef of Valencian restaurant Arros QD, admits it may be difficult to adapt his menu to individual portions. “We specialise in Valencian paellas, which are traditionally eaten communally, with the dish set in the centre of the table for people to serve themselves from. We want to continue to offer that communal experience for which we are known and loved, so we are considering implementing a serving cutlery system, much like what you would see in a Chinese restaurant.” Clearly labelled and colour-coded serving spoons for individuals to serve themselves with, De la Cruz explains, would ensure that no stray forks or fingers go near the communal dish.
Individual serving cutlery is an avenue also under consideration at Iberica, a Spanish tapas chain with branches in London, Leeds, Manchester and Glasgow. “We don’t foresee an avoidance of small plates or tapas-style eating – if you’re in a restaurant with a group of people, then you’re obviously happy to dine in close proximity with them,” says Nacho Manzone, Iberica’s head chef. “We will, however, be providing lots of extra serving cutlery so that guests can each have their own set, as well as cutlery to eat with. This seems like the responsible thing to do.”
Ravinder Bhogal, chef and owner of Jikoni, will be offering customers who return to her Marylebone restaurant the option to split ‘sharing plates’ in the kitchen, divvying up portions to avoid sharing one plate at the table. “Jikoni’s menu has always been very informal," she says. "Sometimes we get diners wishing to eat a traditional three-course menu, and sometimes we get diners wanting to share the whole thing. If my customers would like to share a dish, I’m more than happy to split it and portion onto individual plates before it leaves the kitchen.” Meanwhile, she has been developing a takeaway service for those in the local area until she feels comfortable about reopening the restaurant for eating in.
But what about the all-you-can-eat buffets, Sunday carveries and serve-yourself salad bars, with one pair of serving tongs per dish? Does the solution lie in doling out surgical plastic gloves to wear at all times and implementing one-way systems around the buffet?
Mitchells & Butlers, the company that owns Harvester, Toby Carvery, Miller & Carter and Nicholson’s pubs, says only that “safety remains our highest priority, so we are developing a number of robust measures to protect both our customers and team members.” What those measures may be remains to be seen.
Certainly, a lack of guidance about the opening of restaurants has left restaurateurs at sea. “Everything seems so hearsay at the moment," says Bhogal. "I’m hearing so many contradicting things, and if we were to formulate a plan every time we hear something new, we’d be exhausted. We have to take things one day at a time, doing everything to keep both our staff and guests safe. One thing’s for sure, though, we’re really looking forward to getting welcoming customers back into our restaurant.”
Whether it’s sharing plates, tasting menus or a standard a la carte, many restaurant lovers will agree that in whatever format and by whatever rules, they’ll be simply thrilled, and relieved, to have restaurants back in their lives. “We can but hope we aren’t forced to wear socially-distanced swimming pool noodles on our heads or sit behind shower curtains,” says Flett, “but I’m longing for restaurants to reopen, so ultimately, whatever works best for them, works for me.”