Tasting menus are having a moment that’s being aided by the pandemic.
Once the domain of the most exclusive restaurants, elaborate preset courses have been going mainstream for a few years now. But the trend appears to be gaining speed as struggling restaurateurs look for more cost-effective ways to please customers who want to find experiences that will make dining out during a pandemic worth their while.
At the high end of this trend is Per Se, which rose to fame on its pricy tasting menu when it burst on the scene in 2004. Despite charging its prepandemic price of $355 per person in the midst of an economic downturn, the Columbus Circle restaurant was packed on its Oct. 15 reopening, according to chef and owner Thomas Keller. And reservations are “pretty full” through November, he said.
“People want to experience life like it was before COVID. We are all searching for that restorative nature,” said Keller, who served 76 diners on opening night in a room that seats 40 people at 25 percent capacity.
“It is wonderful to see people celebrating life and for us to be able to bring back staff and support the farmers and fishermen — and the city.”
Tasting menus, which offer a set number and order of courses for a set price often eaten over the course of many hours, provide theater at a time when Broadway is dark and people are hungry for experiences, explained restaurant consultant Donny Evans.
They also help restaurateurs better manage costs at a difficult time because everyone eats the same thing, which means less goes to waste. This is especially true for places that rely heavily on reservations.
“It’s more like a banquet,” even if it is fine dining, Evans said.
While Per Se is still charging top dollar and getting away with it, other restaurants are trying to offer customers more for the money to keep people coming back during a tough economic time.
Starting on Oct. 26, Kintsugi in Soho will be offering a 17 to 19 omakase tasting menu — where the chef predetermines what is served based on the freshest fish available that day — for between $175 and $225. But the Japanese restaurant run by chef John Daley — who worked at 15 East and Tokyo’s Sukeruki and has “rice” and “fish” inked on his knuckles — will continue to offer a $95 tasting menu for customers who choose to eat outside.
“The quality of the sushi deteriorates by the second,” explains Kintsugi’s CEO Chiwa Yeung, adding that it just takes a minute longer to serve the food to people seated outside.
Customers who eat outside also miss out on talking to the chef about the catch of the day and seeing their dishes being prepared right in front of them as they would inside, he said.
The 500-square-foot space can seat six people inside and 14 outside.
At Frevo, an upscale French restaurant at 48 W. Eighth St., Chef Franco Sampogna has added a sixth course to his tasting menu for $128, not including tip, down from the $148-per-customer including tip that the eatery charged before the pandemic. In addition to an artichoke with miso starter, guests now also get to nosh on a dish of calamari with Asian chives in chorizo.
A wine pairing can add $210 more per person.
The restaurant is hidden behind an art-gallery foyer and opens by way of a secret door to reveal a bar and a single table that altogether seats 10 people at 25 percent occupancy.
“I think that people are just happy to come in and enjoy a laid-back night when they don’t have to make any decisions — not even what to order,” Sampogna said.
In today’s world, that may be the biggest luxury of all.
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