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How coronavirus is changing the restaurant experience on Long Island

Steven Del Lima, chef and owner of Hooks

Steven Del Lima, chef and owner of Hooks & Chops in Commack. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

“My wife used to go by Zagat,” confided Stephen Bragoli. “She’d read about a new restaurant there and we’d go check it out.” One evening, Zagat’s bread crumbs led the couple to Caci in Southold, which led them to chef Marco Pellegrini—whose food they immediately fell in love with—which led them to wonder, months later after hearing that Pellegrini wanted to open his own restaurant, if he’d like partners. Pellegrini said yes. “So then I asked my brother Dan, ‘are you interested?’ And he said, ‘are you out of your mind?’ ”

Dan came around eventually, which is how the brothers and Pellegrini came to be laughing about the above memory in a capacious building that previously housed an all-you-can- eat sushi spot, Smithtown Buffet, and before that, an Italian place called Mona Lisa. It was late May, and the trio were well on their way to turning the space into a grand temple of Umbrian cooking—Osteria Umbra—for a man they considered one of the finest Italian chefs on the Island.

“His food—I don’t know, it’s just incredible,” said Stephen as Dan nodded in agreement. A mile-wide grin appeared on Pellegrini’s face. “You’ll see,” said the chef, confident that his canny mix of signature dishes like maialino—suckling pig roasted over a wood-burning fire—and more traditional fare (such as cacio e pepe, made with pasta by his wife, Sabrina Vallorini), would be enough to lure diners into Osteria Umbra for, as the menu puts it, “an unparalleled culinary experience highlighted by mindful hospitality.”

That was in no sense a sure thing. By late May, no one on the Island had eaten inside a restaurant in months, and it was an open question whether anyone would ever want to again, even after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo lifted restrictions in June. Restaurants took heart in the steady stream of takeout business the lockdown had generated for them. But that only proved that people still liked restaurant food, not whether they still had an appetite for being served by strangers at a private table in a public setting, with all the many opportunities for coronavirus exposure that might involve.

“It’s very important to me that people walk in the door and know that they’re safe.”

Steven Del Lima 

It was an uncertain time for everyone reopening restaurants, and also for everyone aching to bring brand-new ones to the public, creations they’d dreamed up in a very different world. And so, even as owners and chefs gamely imported Italian quartzite for their bartops, submitted their electrical systems for inspection and installed cream-colored leather banquettes—knowing that at least half would go unused for the foreseeable future—existential questions abounded. How much had diners changed during quarantine? And how much would restaurants have to change along with them?

Everyone seemed to agree that a lot would depend on the public’s longing for something you can’t get from a biodegradable clamshell or DoorDash delivery. Namely, “atmosphere,” said Michael Bohlsen, co-owner of Tellers steakhouse, Monsoon, Verace, H20 and other upscale restaurants on the Island. “It’s incredibly important, incredibly fragile,” the sum total of a thousand small choices. “It’s not just one large, sweeping vista or a big beautiful room. It’s the outdoor appearance, the doorway, the wallpaper and music, the china and glassware, the way the table looks to you, the bathrooms, and on and on.”

Bohlsen told me he’d received an email that day from a company trying to sell him three-foot-high Plexiglas dividers in the shape of a plus sign that could be mounted on four-tops, effectively giving each member of the table protection from the other three.

But other than keeping the requisite number of tables empty (“which some people are going to enjoy to some degree,” he acknowledged), Bohlsen planned no radical changes. Small ones would be necessary, but with an eye toward preserving as much of his restaurants’ pre-COVID feel as possible. Diners would be alerted to these in advance.

“I’m sure you’ve heard about restaurants that are planning on putting in rock and roll music to really hustle people along, so they can shorten the table-turn times,” he said. “We’re not doing that, but we are letting people know beforehand that there’s only a certain amount of time that they can have their table.

Bohlsen had thought long and hard about how to expedite the fine dining experience, as oxymoronic as that sounded. In addition to inviting patrons to scan the menu online in advance, the whole thing—starters, main courses, even dessert and cocktails—would be printed on one page, front and back, all in the name of keeping things moving during what he termed “segment one” of a meal, “when you have to collectively decide ‘Are we all getting appetizers?,’ ‘How do you feel about a bottle of wine?’ and ‘Oh, here comes the waiter—oh, no, he walked by.’ ”

Bohlsen would try hard to shrink segment one. “We want to get that order from you as quickly as possible, so that we can click into segment two of the meal. If you have a 90-minute or an hour-and-45-minute allotment at the table, we’re going to take the first 11 minutes and get your order, and the rest of your meal is for you to be there and relax.”  

Making patrons feel relaxed and comfortable in a dining room patrolled by servers in masks and gloves would seem to be a tall order, but Bohlsen accepted the inevitability of such precautions, as did chef Steven Del Lima, whose mind was also consumed by issues he’d never expected to wrestle with.

“It’s very important to me that people walk in the door and know that they’re safe,” said Del Lima while putting the finishing touches on Hooks & Chops, a new steak and seafood restaurant in Commack that he hoped to open by July. “But would you feel 100 percent comfortable with someone coming to you with a mask and gloves? It’s very, very tough.”

In another time, Del Lima’s chief selling point might have been his steaks, which endure a novel aging process involving cedarwood, black Himalayan salt and an herb mixture. (“It’s almost like curing and aging at the same time, and the flavors are unbelievable.”) Or the hip, coastal vibe of his dining room, with its dark turquoise walls, blue-and-gray porous concrete floors, shiny as glass, and globe lamps hanging like blown bubbles over the bar. Instead, Del Lima, who has run kitchens at some of the Island’s, and Manhattan’s, finest restaurants, was plotting ways to restrict standing room at the bar, even as he contemplated installing shields “with little doors where the bartender will hand you your drink,” and a cashless payment system. Nonetheless, he claimed to be “optimistically positive” about the future. “When we find a vaccine, things will return to normal. Till then, we have to keep our minds open and make people feel comfortable.”

Boundless optimism seems to come naturally to restaurateurs, an important trait for anyone starting a business that—even in the best of times—has a failure rate of more than 50 percent in the first year. While the Bragoli brothers knew that Osteria Umbra’s opening this summer would coincide with one of the most uncertain periods in modern memory, the men professed unwavering trust that food lovers, no matter how determinedly homebound, would venture out for Pellegrini’s cooking, not to mention the grandeur of his wood-burning oven, which dominates an elegant, ivory-palette dining room, that coronaviruses would come and go but quality dining in a sumptuous space would always find an audience.

“It’s very challenging now, but we have a good feeling,” Pellegrini admitted. “People’s memories are short,” added Steven Bragoli. “People forget and they want to live.”

Michael Bohlsen had a good feeling, too, and about more than his own prospects. “My hope and my assertion is that in the long run, the pandemic is going to mean some very positive changes” for all restaurants. “Any industry that can be closed for five days and have 30 percent of their businesses close permanently is not a good financial model, especially with the amount of capital it takes to open a restaurant.”

He hoped too that local farmers, ranchers and fishermen would come to enjoy greater support from the restaurants in their communities, many of whom have been humbled by the recent crisis. “When you have a busy restaurant—I hate to admit it, but I’ll admit it anyway—there’s a time when you begin to think business is your God-given right. You’re supposed to be busy all the time .... Well, guess what? After you’ve been closed for nine weeks, you don’t feel that way anymore. We should always feel very appreciative of everyone who walks through our door.”

But the reverse should also be true, he added. Even as chefs and owners tried to divine diners’ changing attitudes, Bohlsen couldn’t help hoping that those attitudes might have changed for the better.

“It got to be pretty caustic on social media,” he said, where diners seemed to almost revel in negative restaurant experiences. “Someone would write a complaint and say, ‘I’ve been coming to your place for 10 years and I’ve never written a comment, but today I had a bad meal, so now I’m writing and letting everyone I know it was bad.’ I’m hoping that changes. But I also like to eat strawberries and cream and watch romantic movies, so what do I know?”

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