“It’s almost a paradigm shift,” says Chris Oppewall, general manager of Cru Uncorked in Moreland Hills. “We’re in the business of saying ‘yes,’ or ‘here’s what I can do for you.’ Not saying ‘no, we can’t do the thing you want.’ The challenge is, how do you continue to be of service and not just be someone who is enforcing medical rules on the public.”
Fine-dining restaurants find themselves in a near-impossible position right now, say many local operators. While nearly all independent eateries are reeling from the Covid crisis, providers of four-star meals are contending with challenges separate and apart from those of their more casual colleagues. Social distancing and reduced occupancy is devastating to the bottom line of a business with significantly higher operating costs. Posh bistros are more likely to cater to an older – aka more vulnerable – clientele. Supply-side complications put a daily strain on menus starring deluxe ingredients like fresh seafood, prime beef and specialty produce. But more than anything, fine-dining is about creating a blissful experience where service, setting and food come together in impeccable fashion, a challenge given the current situation.
Mark Kawada, general manager of the seafood-focused Lakewood restaurant Pier W, reports that since reopening the doors on June 2, the dining room has been full every night. Of course, “full” these days means 60 seats as opposed to the regular 145, a 58-percent reduction thanks to social distancing mandates. Those aren’t great numbers considering the cost of doing business, he admits.
“Fine-dining restaurants inherently have higher operating costs,” Kawada explains. “From our silverware and linens on every table that get changed out constantly, to the carpets being cleaned and windows being done twice a week.”
Those costs get lumped in with food costs, which also are considerably more expensive than the burger bar down the block. That’s assuming you can still get what you need to put a menu together.
“Usually this time of year we’re getting Copper River salmon from a fisherman in Cordova [Alaska] that we deal with directly and we can’t do it because it’s too expensive to bring in,” he reports. “The price of steak has gone up, and produce is very limited. We were getting our tuna from Hawaii three times per week next-day, but we couldn’t put it on the menu because we can’t get in touch with our suppliers.”
Kawada says that the current Pier W menu contains 15 items instead of the usual 45, with new dishes being introduced when possible.
Oppewall, like his colleagues who are used to saying “yes is the answer, now what’s the question,” are instead focusing on the things they can control, such as making the environment as safe, sanitary and professional as possible.
“Over half of the people I talk to each night say it’s their first time out,” he says, adding that reports of his restaurant’s handling of the situation spreads through the community by word of mouth. “Still, a lot of the people who would be at the highest risk level based on their age are not coming yet and are not visiting. We understand it. We don’t want to do anything that makes people uncomfortable.”
On a typical evening, that particular demographic takes up considerable real estate inside the Marble Room, perhaps Cleveland’s premier fine-dining restaurant. That is one reason that owner Malisse Sinito says she daily grapples with the decision of whether or not to reopen.
“I have been thinking about this every day because guests contact me every single day for reservations,” explains Sinito. “I know I have demand for the weekends. But what happens Monday through Thursday? It’s the age demographic to begin with. You see the people that are flooding the bars right now. That isn’t necessarily the clientele that is going to spend for fine dining. I would imagine that the older demographic is more fearful.”
Compounding the Marble Room’s complications is its location downtown, adds Sinito.
“There’s no sports, no plays, no concerts, no events and very few people are even going to the office right now because most people are working from home,” she says.
Lola Sema, who co-owns with her husband the wonderful Italian eatery Luca, both downtown and in Westlake, says that she couldn’t wait to return to work to care for her adoring regulars. But she fears that when they do arrive, those guests won’t enjoy the same level of escape and satisfaction.
“A big part of fine dining is the whole experience, from the moment you walk through the door to the moment you leave,” Sema explains. “Ninety-eight percent of the time we can provide that experience and our guests leave happy. But right now I feel like we are not giving them their money’s worth because of everything else that’s going on.”
Sema describes a ballet of small gestures, from the touch of a host’s guiding hand to the intimate presentation of that bottle of Barolo that no longer are part and parcel of the Luca experience thanks to Covid.
“People have been gracious and generous, but for how long,” she wonders.
The Marble Room’s Sinito echoes those concerns. At temples of fine dining, guests are more than happy to spend and spend big in return for a magnificent experience from top to bottom. And for now, at least, those guests are patient, tolerant and understanding. But even in the midst of a pandemic, tolerance has its limits.
“With fine dining, when people are going to come in and spend that kind of money, no matter how much they say they’re going to be forgiving, we know they’re not going to be if the service, food quality and experience isn’t there,” says Sinito.