It's Friday evening in Menlo Park. Bells are ringing, marking 5 o'clock at a church just down the road. At Flea Street, the team is finishing its family meal before guests arrive. Jesse Cool energetically whisks around the restaurant she opened 41 years ago.
The stainless steel Blodgett oven in the kitchen has been in constant use since then, but there's a lot that's new, recently installed to adapt with the COVID-19 pandemic. With the help of a restaurant relief grant, Cool was able to make renovations: There are now high-tech air filters and new doors and sliding windows for fresh air. Outside, there's a new, cozy dining area raised on a wooden platform.
Instead of a fleet of staff catering to each table, there are service stands where guests can help themselves to take and leave what they need.
"Everything's beautiful, but it's different," Cool said.
"What's the future of fine dining?" I want to know. Cool corrects me: "This isn't fine dining," she said. "This is 'thoughtful dining.'"
Imagining the possibilities of what "thoughtful dining" entails, I have faith that the future of dining — fine, casual and otherwise — is full of hope.
Over the past several months, I've spoken with movers and shakers who have helped define the Peninsula food landscape about their predictions for what's to come. I know it's a loaded question and one that's difficult to answer, especially when even the near future seems unclear. Based on their responses, here are some things we can expect in 2022 that will likely be here for a while:
These are a few businesses that have recently emerged in the Peninsula's food and drink scene that are evolving flavors and techniques: At Sushinaloa in Redwood City, the team uses chipotle, chiltepin and jalapeño and other flavors from the Mexican state of Sinaloa to add spice to its sushi. And Brewing With Brothas is putting its own twist on Belgian and German beers in East Palo Alto.
As businesses push culinary styles forward, one essential skill that these entrepreneurs share is storytelling. To introduce their concepts, they have turned to social media, menu writing and more.
At Warung Siska in Redwood City, for example, the team shares not only Indonesian cuisine, but culture and language. On their website, they include phrases in Bahasa (a form of Malay spoken in Indonesia).
"I think adding those phrases really helps to make the experience more in-depth," principal partner Anne Le Ziblatt told this publication.
During the pandemic, fine-dining establishments have had to rethink business models that once heavily depended on what could be experienced in person — attentive service throughout the meal, the careful orchestration and timing of multiple courses, crisp tablecloths, the luxury price points. These historic hallmarks of "fine" don't readily translate toward the takeout model that local ordinances required at the start of the pandemic.
The Bacchus Group, for example, which counts the Michelin-starred Village Pub, Selby's and Spruce among its restaurants, decided to try a limited run of three-course meals delivered via DoorDash. They called it the "family meal" — it sold out in 40 minutes.
"It was a strange thing. I never thought I'd be cooking spaghetti and meatballs and chocolate pudding, but here we are," founding partner Tim Stannard said.
Bruno and Christie Chemel also recently spun out a new concept separate from their fine-dining restaurant Baume in Palo Alto. B Deux Go (also known as "B 2 Go") serves sandwiches priced at $14.98 from the door of the same kitchen where they prepare Baumé's multicourse high-end menu.
"There's a certain degree of casualness coming into (fine dining)," said David Kinch, executive chef at Manresa in Los Gatos. "There's always going to be people who demand a (fine-dining) experience, but there are things that are going to have to change. We're starting to see that now."
Nationally, 4 out of 5 restaurateurs say recruiting and retention is their greatest challenge. Local restaurateurs have been devising different ways to handle this, including sharing staff with other restaurants or pivoting operations to make the most of their teams' bandwidth.
Dino Tekdemir, for example, closed Anatolian Kitchen in Palo Alto and has plans to reopen as Naschmarkt Palo Alto — a sister restaurant to a location in Campbell. The idea is to bring talent from the Campbell location to Palo Alto without having to train a new team.
At Roger Bar and Restaurant in Mountain View, the team has been experimenting with robots servers that return dishes to the kitchen. This helps free up the human team to focus on other guest interactions, according to food and beverages director Jacky Li.
As the pandemic continues, ROOH's Bhambri said restaurateurs will "need to adapt to a new set of scenarios and keep changing, keep learning. That's the only way going forward."
Editor's note: Due to rising COVID-19 cases in the region, Flea Street decided to temporarily close at the start of January. The restaurant will keep diners informed of its reopening plans on its website cooleatz.com.
Dig into food news. Follow the Peninsula Foodist on Instagram @peninsulafoodist and subscribe to the newsletter to get insights on the latest openings and closings, learn what the Foodist is excited about eating, read exclusive interviews and keep up on the trends affecting local restaurants.
Sara Hayden writes for TheSixFifty.com, a sister publication of Palo Alto Online, covering what to eat, see and do in Silicon Valley.