New York In the East Village, modern Korean restaurant Soogil converted to a six-course tasting menu early on in the pandemic. Michael Tulipan/Soogil
The set menu has been key to surviving another pandemic winter for some NYC restaurants
It took staggering financial losses for Woodside’s Casa del Chef Bistro chef and owner Alfonso Zhicay to throw up his hands, scrap his a la carte menu, and debut a tasting menu in January. Customer traffic had nosedived, COVID cases were spiking due to the omicron variant spread, and Zhicay found himself throwing out pricey, unsold scallops while staring down a 90 percent decrease in sales in November and December. “We were losing money every night,” Zhicay says.
Not every restaurateur faced the brink of closure like Zhicay before deciding to toss their a la carte menus, but many were aching to eliminate a bevy of variables affecting their dinner services and bottom line. Neighborhood spots like Lower East Side Italian restaurant Forsythia, Olmsted in Prospect Heights, and Casa del Chef Bistro in Woodside are now finding a measure of relief in tasting and prix fixe menus, a more rigid dinner format often associated with costly fine dining meals. Some owners say that while the change hasn’t necessarily boosted sales, there are other upsides: They’ve been able to cut down on food waste, better handle staffing shortages, and find more space for creativity in their day-to-day work.
At hip pasta spot Forsythia, owner Jacob Siwak allows diners to choose a handful of menu options for each course — “I don’t want to serve someone something that they don’t like,” Siwak says — but the kitchen can better prepare for unpredictable demands and cut down on food waste with a prix fixe menu. In the former a la carte format, the 45-seat restaurant would regularly see a dish spike in popularity one night only to plummet the next, after the team had already spent time prepping extra orders in anticipation of another sell-out night. The prix fixe menu decreased the need for that guesswork and allows the team to prepare more efficiently for each night. “We have more time to prepare for new dishes instead of working on the ones we already have,” Siwak says.
Forsythia’s service director George Bernard behind the bar at the restaurant. Madeline Mark/Forsythia
While Forsythia still employs the same amount of 14 to 15 people, Siwak says that the restaurant is better able to handle last-minute staffing shortages with the prix fixe menus because the kitchen work has stabilized, and servers don’t have to spend as much time walking diners through the menu. At Casa del Chef Bistro, Zhicay can now run the restaurant with four employees instead of six on busier weekend nights.
Zhicay also found that transitioning to a tasting menu allowed more space for creativity in his work. Casa del Chef Bistro’s current menu changes on a weekly basis depending on what Zhicay finds at farmers markets and from the restaurant’s purveyors,