Ten milestones from a strange year in dining
Things change every year, but not like this.
In hindsight, the best that can be said about dining in the year 2021 is that it wasn’t as awful as we were expecting. On December 31 of 2020 the dining scene looked bleak, but we close the books on the 2021 with guarded optimism. Here were 10 of the high and low points:
- The collapse that wasn’t. In late 2020, pundits were predicting that between a third and half of all restaurants in America would shutter. Surprisingly, that didn’t happen on either a local or national scale. There were actually fewer closures of South Bay restaurants in 2021 than in 2018 or 2019, before the pandemic began.
- The return of indoor dining. 2021 opened with no indoor dining at all, then slowly and cautiously moved to full occupancy. It was 25 percent in March, 50 pecent in May, 100 percent in June. By mid-August communal tables were back at some restaurants, though many diners refused to sit at them. Some restaurants took a long time to reopen indoors, like Baran’s 2239, which resumed in September. A few still haven’t, like Phanny’s on PCH in Redondo. Many restaurants reduced indoor seating to allow more space between tables, though in some cases they could accommodate the same number of diners or even more because of their new outdoor spaces. Which brings us to…
- The blossoming of dining decks. These started out as temporary picnic spaces with little character, but blossomed with decoration despite the warning that they’d be torn down in September. That deadline has been extended repeatedly, to the fury of some neighboring business owners who have lost parking for their customers. Many drivers have been vocal about traffic jams and dangerous intersections, and some residents of nearby buildings complain about nighttime noise. Some of these decks were not built to be permanent structure code, but restaurant owners are hesitant to spend money upgrading them because they may soon be illegal again.
- Insofar as there was any dining trend in the Beach Cities, it was a resurgence of Asian cuisine, with openings by Dan Modern Chinese, Nawa Thai, Jiayuan Dumpling House, Pa-do, and Dash Dashi, with Hermosa’s Ryla on the way. There were also a lot of new Mexican restaurants (Esperanza, Vida, Tigre’s Fuego, El Goloso, and Agave Azul), but in a remarkable change from past years, only one Italian restaurant. And speaking of that…
- The mainstreaming of veganism continued. Pura Vita became the first high style vegan Italian restaurant in the area, a must for plant-based date nights, but both existing restaurants and newcomers expanded the variety of vegan and vegetarian options. The trend has been noticeable for several years, and accelerated in 2021.
- Staff shortages. These have affected established restaurants severely and delayed the openings of some newcomers. All restaurants are paying more for both serving and kitchen help and trying various strategies to overcome this. On the back-of-house side, some restaurants have thinned their menus to save money and pump orders out faster. In the front of the house, ordering via iPads has been widely tried, but mostly abandoned, and the use of robots to make and serve food is under trial. Most diners seem to be calmly coping with this and generously tipping the hard-working people who have stayed on the job.
- Shorter hours and more erratic closing times. That staff shortage may be partly responsible, or it may be a response to a social change, but many restaurants are closing their kitchens earlier than they used to. They’re also shutting down when business is slow, which makes things difficult for people who have checked the hours on the website and figure they can just drop in.
- Delayed openings. Construction material has been scarce and expensive, kitchen equipment is back-ordered, contractors are short of workers, and building inspectors are coping with a huge backlog from the months when they were out of the office. The bureaucratic logjam is worse in some cities than others, with a general consensus that Manhattan Beach is slowest at issuing permits, El Segundo the fastest. There are several restaurants in the South Bay that are more than six months behind schedule, which is causing havoc and heartburn among operators and investors.
- Closures. Some longtime landmarks have gone, like The Deck, Grimaldi’s, Houston’s, and Sion’s. A celebrity chef’s project fizzled when Costa went under, and we lost our only Caribbean kitchen when Mia’s folded. The Jack in the Box on PCH in Manhattan Beach was more of a landmark than a place at which people who care about good food actually ate, but it’s gone too.
- The great ingredient price hike. The most frightening trend of the year for restaurants is the spike in their ingredient costs. There are many reasons for this, including the damage to agriculture caused by global warming, farm labor shortages due to covid, and the California drought. The well-publicized supply chain problems caused by a backup in global trade has trapped some supplies in shipping containers offshore, and increased fuel prices have added to production costs. The cargo backlog is clearing, but much of the rest is structural and not likely to change in the near future.
The restaurant business has always been chancy and generally run with narrow margins, and Americans have been used to spending a relatively low portion of their income on food, whether at home or out. Those days of cheap prosperity may be coming to a close, and restaurateurs have been grappling with it in various ways. It has been part of our year, but surely will continue changing the way we all eat. ER