‘The most elevated ordering-in experience’: High-end restaurants reinvent themselves during COVID-19

Fancy comfort food. Personalized menus. Multi-course dinners to go. In the midst of a pandemic, eateries are taking up new approaches to tempt Ontarians to get takeout.
By Jessica Huras - Published on May 04, 2020
Marbl, a bistro-style restaurant in Toronto, has added macaroni and cheese to its menu. (Photo courtesy of Marbl)



Fine dining is as much about service, ambiance, and other sensory elements as it is about quality food. That’s why many high-end restaurants didn’t offer takeout in the pre-COVID world. But the pandemic confronted these restaurants with a choice: find a way to package that experience in a takeout box or close indefinitely. 

Spots such as Toronto’s Edulis and Ottawa’s Atelier have chosen to go the latter route. But some upmarket restaurants have gone with the former — and completely reimagined their menus. 

Taking a cue from the quick, unfussy fare that has traditionally dominated to-go dining, spots such as Gitanes, a modern French restaurant in Ottawa, have pivoted to serving casual, comforting dishes. “At an upscale restaurant, the stereotype is you do lower volumes at a higher expense,” says Amanda Klein Gunnewiek, Gitanes’ general manager. “We flipped it, and now we're doing high volumes at lower costs.” 

Gitanes still sources high-quality ingredients from the same local producers and makes everything from scratch, but diners are now ordering swiss mushroom patty melts instead of steak frites. “When we're eating at home, oftentimes it’s more comfort food that we're looking forward to,” says Klein Gunnewiek. “I think that's what people want right now.” 

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Marbl, an American bistro-style restaurant in Toronto, has taken a similar approach. Owner Peter Girges has added shepherd’s pie and macaroni and cheese to a menu that typically features braised lamb shank and Atlantic cod. “If we did the regular menu, it would make no sense,” says Girges, adding that the new additions are already among Marbl’s best-sellers for takeout. “It goes to show that people really want that comfort food.”

Other upscale restaurants, rather than switching to approachable, takeout-friendly fare, are aiming to redefine what the to-go experience can look like. 

Alo, a tasting-menu restaurant in Toronto, recently launched Alo at Home, a multi-course takeout-dinner program. There’s one set menu available each week; a limited number of pick-up time slots are available for online booking. “We're trying to make it the most elevated ordering-in experience anybody's ever had,” says John Bunner, operations director for Alo Food Group.

Dining to playlists put together by chef-owner Patrick Kriss and receiving personalized menus are signature parts of the dining-room experience at Alo. Now, diners ordering Alo at Home will find the same personalized menus in their takeout bags — and details on how to access a Spotify playlist that Kriss updates each week. “It’s important to Patrick to put as much of the experience in the bag as we can,” says Bunner.

Toronto’s luxe omakase restaurant Sushi Masaki Saito has also opted to create a new kind of high-end takeout experience. Michelin-starred chef Masaki Saito personally makes every dish on the restaurant’s four-item delivery menu. Each item is capped at 10 orders per day. 

Like Alo, Sushi Masaki Saito is aiming to recreate elements of the restaurant experience through its packaging. “Everything is from Japan,” says Kamen Sun, the restaurant’s COO. “The takeout container is a traditional wooden box from Japan, and we have Japanese fabric to wrap it.”

Reduced pricing is a common theme among upmarket restaurants that have made the shift to takeout. A set dinner at Sushi Masaki Saito costs $500 per person (without drinks); the restaurant’s delivery boxes are priced between $58 and $198. A tasting menu at Alo would typically run you $145 per person; Alo at Home is $65 per person. 

Some might argue that that’s still a lot to pay for delivery. But Kyle Sloopka, director of operations for the Chase Hospitality Group, which is behind such upscale Toronto restaurants as Arthur’s and Kasa Moto, is confident there’s a demand for it. “There is a group of individuals that are at home, they're still working, and they're still earning 100 per cent of their salary,” says Sloopka, “And they’re not used to cooking [at home], especially in downtown Toronto.”

Chase Hospitality recently reopened several of its restaurants with limited takeout menus, but, Sloopka says, they’re exploring other options for the future, including pantry boxes: “It’s clear there is a need; people still want to be catered to.” 

Sushi Masaki’s Saito’s delivery program sold out for several days straight as soon as it launched. Klein Gunnewiek says that Gitanes struggled to keep up with the wave of orders it received the first weekend after it had introduced takeout. Alo at Home is proving so popular that Bunner says the team is considering continuing the program after dining rooms are able to reopen. “The bookings just vaporize like water on a hot path,” he says. 

With the future of so many restaurants uncertain amid COVID-19, many fine-dining restaurants are focusing on listening to their customers and learning as they go. “We’re imagining, what if it’s not weeks? What if it’s months upon months? How would we want to build this business?” says Bunner. “We’re treating it like we’re opening a brand-new restaurant.”

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