This week’s Thanksgiving menu at Daniel, with its pumpkin velouté, heritage-breed turkey and yams “Saint Florentin”, was selling well at $245 per head (before the wine pairing). But Daniel Boulud, whose Michelin-starred Manhattan flagship has been an Upper East Side favourite since 1993, was finding it hard to celebrate.
“We think they’re going to close indoor dining next week,” he said of the New York authorities whose efforts to slow the spread of Covid-19 have become central to his business’s fortunes. “It’s becoming very stressful.”
The city’s restaurants only resumed indoor dining on September 30, at a quarter of their usual capacity, and they are still adjusting to the 10pm curfew governor Andrew Cuomo imposed two weeks ago.
“[That] is really the worst,” Mr Boulud said.
He has tried opening an hour earlier for dinner, “but that does not mean people want to come at 4pm”.
Restaurateurs across the US are facing a patchwork of new restrictions as coronavirus cases climb. Celebrity chefs, fast-food chains and the owners of small neighbourhood favourites alike warn that the new measures could shatter an industry that has already shed 2.1m jobs — unless Congress bails restaurants out.
California, Illinois and Washington have already banned indoor service, and several states have cut off alcohol service after 10pm or 11pm. In Vermont restaurants may only seat one household per table; in Maine they must close by 9pm; and in Maryland and Wyoming they cannot offer buffets.
The National Restaurant Association this week urged states to rethink such restrictions, questioning the public health case for them.
“We are too commonly labelled as ‘superspreaders’, and have become a convenient scapegoat for reflexive shutdowns,” it said in a letter to the National Governors Association. “Tens of thousands of additional restaurant bankruptcies — and millions of lost jobs — are now more likely, while the science remains inconclusive on whether any health benefits will accrue.”
One in six restaurants in the US have already closed, the Independent Restaurant Coalition noted this week, as it warned that a third could shut by the end of the year. An industry that employs 11m Americans has already been responsible for one in five of the pandemic’s lost jobs.
Nowhere is the alarm greater than in Los Angeles, where county public health officials this week banned both indoor and outdoor dining, leaving restaurateurs with only their takeaway, drive-through or delivery services.
The impact has been “horrible, absolutely devastating”, said Caroline Styne, after tearfully telling 40 of her 44 remaining staff at A.O.C. that she would have to lay them off after Wednesday’s dinner service.
The wine bar and restaurant employed 80 people before the pandemic, and had transformed its parking lot “at great expense” to keep operating at about half its usual capacity, she said, but “this is putting us on the brink of disaster”.
David Chang, the chef behind Momofuku, responded to LA County’s measures with a stream of tweets attacking the “ineptitude” of those who had forced closures with no safety net for those affected.
Restaurant owners are now trying to turn the backlash into renewed momentum for a bipartisan bill which proposes $120bn in grants to smaller independent restaurants.
The Restaurants Act passed the House of Representatives last month as part of the Heroes Act, and has support from 50 senators, including several Republicans. But Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, has not yet put it to a vote.
“I am eternally hopeful,” Ms Styne said, “but it’s really just a shame that the Senate has not voted on this.”
Ms Styne and Mr Boulud received loans under the Paycheck Protection Program this spring, but both said these had been of limited benefit because they could only be forgiven if all staff were retained even while restaurants were forced to stay closed.
“PPP was a short-term fix to a long-term problem,” Tom Colicchio, the co-founder of New York’s Gramercy Tavern, told MSNBC this week.
Mr Chang predicted that it could take years for tourism and business lunches to recover.
Recent vaccine announcements suggest that “real hope is on the horizon”, the chef Danny Meyer said last week, even as he put indoor and outdoor dining at New York stalwarts such as Union Square Cafe on hold.
But before then, restaurant owners face a winter in which the weather may pose as many challenges as local restrictions, particularly in northern states.
Mr Boulud, who is planning “another big investment” to shield diners at his Upper West Side outlets from New York’s rain, snow and cold, has asked airlines if they would provide blankets from their little-used business class cabins to warm his patrons.
Meanwhile, the challenge of getting food to outdoor tables without it going cold is forcing him to rethink his menu. “I want to do some warm dishes directly served on the table, like stew and cheese fondue,” Mr Boulud said. “It’s a good ambience.”