“I’m convinced that the pandemic we’re currently living through is both a manifestation of and a mere interruption in the relentless march toward an interconnected world, one in which peoples and cultures can’t help but collide. In that world — of global supply chains, instantaneous capital transfers, social media, climate change, mass migration, and ever-increasing complexity — we will learn to live together, cooperate with one another, and recognize the dignity of others, or we will perish.”
It probably wasn’t what he had in mind at the time, but with these lines from his recently released memoir, A Promised Land, Barack Obama was offering much-needed comfort to some of the world’s most famous restaurants. I’ll try to explain.
In the 15 or so years leading to the pandemic, chefs ascended to the ranks of artists and ambassadors, helped along by the advancements of the interconnected world the former American president describes. From Järpen to Bogotá, Santiago to Macau, hundreds of bucket-list dining destinations spread across the planet, sparking culinary movements, animating local economies, reshaping once-sleepy cities. If you booked a long-haul flight just to have a four-hour, $400 lunch at one of these spots, you weren’t merely chasing indulgence; you were tapping into an expression of place, with the ancillary benefit of gathering content for the ‘gram.
Now restaurants are in peril. In the United States, the industry faces near-extinction. Even in countries where governments have provided more support to the sector, survival is far from assured. Most globetrotting diners, meanwhile, are staying as local as everybody else, either because they see it as a moral imperative or it is simply illegal (or incredibly difficult) to do otherwise.
Naturally, this most excruciating pause has sparked debate. While no one is happy to see mom-and-pops disappear, some argue that another potential casualty of the pandemic — the notion of the chef-auteur — is, in the long term, more than beneficial.
So, for the sake of argument, let’s imagine a future in which we’re all sufficiently inoculated and border controls have relaxed. Are diners still going to jump through hoops for the privilege of sitting through a meal in 20 acts? Is the hope of the list-toppers of pre-pandemic times to proceed with business as usual? What will change? What will stay the same?
And, frankly, why should anyone give a shit?
These are some of the questions I posed to the operators of big-ticket restaurants and the diners who fly around the world to frequent them.
Last week, chef Ben Shewry and the team at Attica in Melbourne, Australia, celebrated a milestone: They welcomed diners into their restaurant for the first time in nearly nine months, after weathering one of the most severe lockdowns in the world. Given that international diners only represent a minority of Attica’s business — and the fact that (surprise) the shutdowns paid off — Shewry is optimistic. “If I had a dollar for every time someone said that the kind of restaurant I run was over, the financial strain of this crisis would have been far less excruciating,” he says of his restaurant, which was listed at number 20 on the World’s 50 Best list in 2018. “It’s understandable, of course, that you might make such a prediction in an environment that feels more hopeless.”
“It’s a shitshow,” says San Francisco chef Dominique Crenn, whose three restaurants—including the three-star Atelier Crenn—have closed indefinitely in accordance with the city’s recent stay-at-home order. Like so many American operators, Crenn has been left to fend for herself and, in a way, stand in for government. “You want to do the right thing for your staff, and that is extremely hard under these circumstances. Even though they write about people like me as rock-star chefs, restaurants like Atelier Crenn don’t make a lot of money.”
That doesn’t mean she’ll be changing course at Atelier Crenn once the situation stabilizes. Most of her business is local; she’ll just have to focus on maximizing interest from America. “My vision is my vision, and my brand is my brand,” she says.
To Shewry, the future isn’t so much about changing what’s on the plate. It’s an opportunity for him to continue to advocate for a healthier, more professional kitchen culture, and for chefs to learn, once and for all, how to properly run a business. “Luckily, I had started to pay more attention to the bottom line before the crisis, but for so many years, I buried my head in the sand, like so many chefs. If I had entered the pandemic with three months of debt, we simply wouldn’t be here.”
But, he adds, “I’m only five services in and perhaps clouded by the joy of that achievement. I’m looking ahead to winter. The bottom line is that if I have to change what I serve to bring in customers, then I will do it.”
On the night of December 8, restaurants in Denmark served their last meal of 2020—including René Redzepi’s Noma. “Winter will no doubt be rock bottom,” says the restaurant’s COO, Ben Liebmann, as positive cases in the Nordic nation continue to break records. “However, the fact that we can count on government support and its general concern for the well-being of the citizenry, this is a rare opportunity to reignite the creative juices. René and the team are thinking about how to evolve, as always, but it has nothing to do with what the market dictates.”
In recent months, with most borders closed, the dining room was full, a complete shift in the iconic restaurant’s customer base. It’s a sign, Liebmann says, that Copenhageners and diners from neighboring countries will be ready to return in the spring. After all, he seems to suggest, Noma is Noma.
In Slovenia’s Soca Valley, the mood is less sanguine. Last month, chef Ana Roš took it upon herself to close her restaurant Hisa Franko through March; Slovenia has one of the highest COVID-related pro-capita death rates in the world. “We’re a country that is less populous than many major cities, so travelers represent ninety percent of my dining room.” Roš did see an unprecedented wave of business over the summer, when the first lockdown subsided, but with governments now squeezed, “the comeback will be much slower.”
“I’m optimistic during the day and worried at night,” she says. “You caught me at night.”
Since The Clove Club debuted in East London in 2013, the restaurant’s menu and audience have expanded as a function of its notoriety. “Year on year, the clientele has become more international,” says Daniel Willis, who founded the Shoreditch hotspot with longtime friends Johnny Smith and Isaac McHale. “It’s because we kept performing better on the World’s 50 Best List.”
That international clientele has largely vanished. Earlier this month, Willis and his partners decided to permanently shutter Two Lights, a casual restaurant they opened following the success of their first. The crown jewel, however, is surviving — if not thriving. Weekdays at Clove have been a slog, he says, but interest on Fridays and Saturdays from folks with fewer travel options has been reliably robust. In October, for the first time since the pandemic began, the restaurant broke even. And just days ago, the U.K. government announced a loosening of border restrictions to entice business travelers.
Net: At least for now, there are no plans to overhaul the concept of the restaurant to meet a new age.
Some avid travelers sound just as bullish. “If the numbers come down significantly by the second quarter of 2021 and everyone has been vaccinated, then it’s on like Donkey Kong,” says Bonjwing Lee, the Kansas City-based writer and photographer behind the blog Ulterior Epicure, who racked up nearly 125,000 airline miles in 2019. “The appetite for travel might not come back as quickly for others, but I do feel like gastro-tourism will bounce back eventually. We may first see communities continue to rally around local businesses, which is wonderful, but the fact of the matter is that once they are allowed to, the wealthy patrons who sustain the list-topping restaurants will be there to keep them going.”
Other roving diners express a touch more caution. “We haven’t seen how the vaccine will play out, and I am also concerned about what would happen to me if I got sick in another country,” says Pedro Iglesias, an insurance executive whom New York City kitchens would identify first as an uncommonly informed, unentitled regular. A gently Falstaffian presence, he makes regular pilgrimages to Europe, tearing through restaurants of all categories, and he has set foot in Daniel perhaps more times than Boulud himself. Iglesias is not ready to turn his back on any particular dining idiom, he says, “but my feeling is that I will be much more deliberate about if and how I travel to these places.” For now, he’s channeling his energy into meticulously documenting Manhattan meals on Instagram, many of them takeout orders enjoyed in his Harlem home.
“We need to play it safe,” Roš insists. She offers a story: When one of her staffers returned from a wedding with a positive diagnosis, some on the team suggested keeping the news under wraps. The chef didn’t hesitate to go public, she says, adding: “For the benefit of everyone, we have to take this as seriously as possible for a long time.”
If one radical hope emerged from these conversations, it was the desire to leave some of the B.S. behind.
“I have a mostly positive view of the idea of traveling for food,” says Copenhagen chef Christian F Puglisi. “I find it meaningful to witness a form of culture that is alive, like going to Russia to see the ballet. The thing is, the craziness around restaurants wound up feeling just like what it once contrasted: It’s now the same as the Little Mermaid statue everybody comes to see in my city. Surrounded by plastic shit, you like it because you are supposed to like it. It’s not a real exchange anymore.”
Last month, Puglisi shut down the two restaurants that put him on the map, Relæ and Manfreds, some of the earliest drivers of the Danish capital’s culinary ascendance. It wasn’t about money, he says: “It was based on reflection. Just because you can keep going doesn’t mean you should.” Puglisi would like to see things get more locally minded, a bit scrappier. “Relæ was a product of the  financial crisis, and that climate inspired us to find new ways.” When it gets too easy for chefs, he adds, you just get more of the same.
“I would love to see us be more thoughtful and deliberate about our choices,” says Clove Club’s Willis. “It would be amazing if we could nurture homegrown talent and people weren’t so keen on flying across the planet for the purposes of a meal.”
“I had taken it too far,” says Aiste Miseviciute. Before the pandemic, the London blogger behind Luxeat was flying once a week in search of the next perfect meal. “I always tried to focus on artisanship and quality over buzz, but it was still excessive—boring, in a way. I hope we slow down and just eat the food we want to eat.”
Iglesias calls it a period of “consolidation and correction,” one that might further diminish the influence of controversial lists like World’s 50 Best, which tend to favor a particular kind of restaurant: those with PR budgets and socially adept chefs willing to glad-hand voters in a fashion not unlike stars dispatched by the studio to make members of the Hollywood Foreign Press feel special; chefs who, increasingly, began traveling the world advocating for all manner of social and environmental change.
“The pandemic has highlighted all of the cracks in our society, and there may be less of a tolerance for charlatanism,” says Lee. “It’s time to see who has the goods and who is all talk.”
Puglisi isn’t counting on it. “Hopefully something as drastic as a fucking pandemic can cause people to stop and think. But we humans are usually so quick to just try to make everything go back to normal,” he says.