Of all the fine-dining experiences in Vancouver, the kitchen bar at St. Lawrence is one of the most intimate. In a restaurant that is already very small, this cozy chef’s counter is composed of six front-row stools tightly squeezed against the dessert station – so close you can almost taste the powdery cocoa in the air when a slice of flaky coffee-cream millefeuille is being dusted.
When people asked which restaurant I missed most during the pandemic shutdowns, this is the tableau that always came to mind. Not because St. Lawrence is my favourite restaurant (it’s one of many), but because I knew I might never have the pleasure of sitting at its kitchen bar again.
Fine dining is as much about the ambience, the service and the thoughtfully curated experience as it is about the quality of the food. It’s one thing to space out tables in a pizza joint, where masked servers and QR-code ordering are small sacrifices for the satisfaction of sinking your teeth into a billowy crust.
It’s a much taller order for top-tier restaurants to entice customers into spending hundreds of dollars when they might have to pour their own wine and can barely hear their servers.
The risk-reward threshold for fine dining is much higher than for other styles of dining and all around the world, restaurateurs are wondering if tasting menus, wine pairings and delicate morsels elaborately plated with tweezers even has a place in these strange times.
Some are scaling back and offering more comforting, affordable fare. In Copenhagen, the world-renowned Noma has reinvented itself as an outdoor wine and burger bar.
In London, many iconic restaurants, including the two Michelin-starred The Ledbury have decided not to reopen this weekend, explaining that physical-distancing restrictions and lack of tourists have made their business models unviable.
In Toronto, New York and other major North American cities where indoor dining is still not an option, fine dining remains limited to creating meals that can be boxed up and delivered.
But in Vancouver, upscale restaurants, while not exactly thriving, are surviving. St. Lawrence, Bishop’s, Tojo’s, Cioppino’s, Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar, Kissa Tanto, Mott 32, Le Crocodile, Pear Tree, L’Abattoir, Hawksworth, Five Sails, Elisa and Blue Water Cafe are all up and running. Giardino is one of the only notable white-cloth exceptions, but it plans to resume operations on July 15.
Of course, these restaurants are extremely fortunate to be in a city that has the virus well under control. But what’s more interesting is that the restaurants haven’t pivoted to more casual fare or changed their menus dramatically. All have stayed true to their core identity. Some have even tightened their focus.
“It’s more important than ever that fine-dining restaurants stick to their guns,” says J.P. Potters, the general manager of Boulevard in the Sutton Place Hotel.
“Downgrading the experience is not a great strategy. If you have a loyal following, your guests will want to come back for the experience that they remember.”
The Boulevard experience is a “little less theatrical” these days – the tasting menu, tableside services and shared seafood boils are on hold for now.
But if anything, Mr. Potters says, the smaller menu size might be advantageous in the long run. “It was time for a reset. The menu had become bigger over the years to appeal to more people, and this is an issue for many restaurants. But you can’t please everyone. Restaurants are now able to refocus a bit and can provide the best expression of what they are in the most controlled fashion.”
Restaurateurs across the city echo this sentiment. At Cioppino’s, which carried out a scheduled $2-million renovation during the wider city shutdowns, the new menu includes a daily changing tasting menu, which had previously only been available by word of mouth – but was actually the best way to dine there. Since reopening two weeks ago, approximately 35 per cent of Cioppino’s customers have ordered it.
“Some people have come back three or four times,” chef-owner Pino Posteraro says. “They get caviar, lobster, uni, spot prawns – the best of the best. People still want to be tantalized. They cannot travel. They’re starving – emotionally – to go out and eat in places. I don’t think COVID took away anybody’s curiosity or desire to eat good food.”
At St. Lawrence, which was recently chosen as second-best restaurant in the country by Canada’s 100 Best, there have also been adjustments to the menu with a tighter focus on the classic French cuisine with Quebecois twists that the kitchen does best. The à la carte menu has been replaced with a three-course, prix fixe selection that must be ordered online and paid for in advance.
“Vancouver loves small plates and sharing, but that’s not really the French way of dining,” says chef-owner J.C. Poirier. “Of course people can still share and they supplement their meal with additional dishes, but we have more control over the experience so that our guests are enjoying St. Lawrence the way it was intended to be.”
Mr. Poirier says he doesn’t think fine dining will ever disappear. “This is not a restaurant where you go every week, but you come to celebrate special occasions. And there will always be special occasions. The first week we were open, almost every table was celebrating a birthday. People still want to be impressed.”
I certainly was.
When I made my reservation, I knew the kitchen bar would not be available. But as soon as I began perusing the online menu and realized the restaurant’s glorious pâté en croûte was still available, my heart began racing with fond memories.
The temperature checks at the door, the constant washing of hands (which I could see from my seat) and the silk masks all put me at ease.
When our server offered to pour our decanted wine, I declined. But I certainly didn’t mind when he flambéed our lemon tart with Grand Marnier.
Yet of all the new adjustments, it was the wooden dividers between tables that impressed me most. They make every table feel like a private room. You can’t even see the other diners.
No, I couldn’t sit at the bar, but the experience felt more intimate and exclusive than ever.
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