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F&B: The new dining experience
WHEN YOU ARRIVE for dinner at the three Michlin-starred Les Amis, a thermal imaging scanner takes your temperature, while the masked staff check you in at your table. As each elaborately plated dish is laid before you, your (still masked) server stands a discreet distance away as he or she explains the thinking behind Chef Sebastien Lepinoy’s creation, and the provenance of the ingredients. If the voice sounds slightly muffled, not to worry as they will be stepping up voice training to make sure they can “communicate effectively through the mask,” says Chef Lepinoy.
It’s not the ideal fine dining experience but he still couldn’t be happier.
After the past couple of months of alternately worrying at home and then rolling out a well-received takeaway menu, he’s back in the saddle again at Les Amis, where it has been all systems go since reopening on June 21 under Phase 2 of the economy’s reboot. Most fine dining restaurants which couldn’t open in time for June 19, have opened in turn this past week. Odette, for example, opened on June 23, followed by Zen on June 25, and Cloudstreet on June 26.
Les Amis has been fully booked for lunch and dinner since Monday, a strong performance given that it’s operating at full capacity - the one-metre ruling doesn’t apply to them since the tables have always been well-spaced out.
If things continue as they are, he’s confident that business will go back to preCovid-19 levels even without the support of tourists. Unlike Europe, where threestarred restaurants are only opening in September for the travel season “because without tourists they cannot operate”, he is banking on local residents and top-level business dining to return because “my price is much lower than a three star in Paris, and we alway keep Singaporean consumers in mind”.
THE NEW-LOOK DINING ROOM
Across most upscale restaurants in town, you’ll find more elbow room and physical space, which is great for diners but not necessarily for the bottom line as seating capacity is cut to accommodate strict safe distancing measures.
Beppe De Vito of the ilLido group reports full houses at all four of his restaurants - Amò, Art, Braci and Southbridge - over the June 19 reopening weekend, but that’s also because he had to cut seats by 40 per cent.
He also moved Art from its fifth floor location at the National Gallery to the sixth floor rooftop where the bar-bistro Aura usually is, since corporate events are not likely to be allowed anytime soon.
On the whole, the reopening was smooth and guests seemed happy, says Mr De Vito. “If anything, they seemed reassured that we’re doing all we can to protect everyone. Other than that, we did have two cancellations on the first day, and one table walked out because we couldn’t offer an ala carte menu over the first weekend due to ingredients’ supply.”
At the one Michelin-starred Candlenut, chef-owner Malcolm Lee has an entire document filled with safety protocols for staff from temperature taking to table sanitising. “We also had to adjust our layout to make sure there were proper waiting/pickup areas for delivery and crowd management,” he says. “We have QR codes on each table so guests can view the menu on their phones. If they still prefer a physical one, we sanitise it after each use.” Enforcement is strict by government agencies, “but it’s manageable”.
It’s the same at mod-Indian eatery Thevar, where inspectors “came down to check on the one-metre ruling between tables and to make sure we were doing contact tracing,” says chef-owner Mano Thevar. He had to cut seating by almost half, but made up the numbers with two seatings. “Originally, we could fit 40 people in one seating, but now it’s 20 indoors and eight outdoors.” Even though he suffered a few no-shows, “we managed to make up for it with walk-ins.”
While it has been full house all the way for most upscale eateries mainly because of reduced capacity, the 10.30pm curfew on alcohol consumption has been a “hindrance”, says Mr De Vito, adding as an example, “We had two tables the other day that ordered another bottle of wine, only to cancel when they realised it was already 10.10pm.”
“We do predict to lose our late night seating as we need to stop food and drinks service at 10.30pm,” says Dave Pynt, chefowner of one-starred Burnt Ends, which is fully booked for the foreseeable future.
“The response has been fantastic but obviously with reduced capacity it doesn’t take long to fill those seats, especially in a small restaurant like ours.” For Rishi Naleendra of the one-starred Cheek and acclaimed Cloudstreet, the curfew does limit experiences like wine-pairing dinners. “We have to be spot on with our timing - if things go wrong we can’t really buy time, because the last course can’t be after 10.30pm.”
ONE DINER’S EXPERIENCE
For Trina Liang, managing director of Templebridge Investments, June 19 “felt more like Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve”. After two months of weekly Zoom calls with her girlfriends, they met for dinner at Art, “where the first thing we noticed was the spacing - there was a lot more of it between tables,” says Ms Liang. “Second, of course, was that all the wait staff wore masks. Some of them even looked cool in them, not odd or ugly. It made us feel safe. Third, there were no physical menus - you have to download the menu with a QR code.”
Of course, “We were all really worried about crowded spaces even with safe distancing, so we wanted to keep clear of hotspots. For fine dining, I feel that there is no great worry about crowded spaces. Art has a lot of space and also I knew the museum was closed.”
As it was a wine-pairing dinner, “you have to be mindful of the start and end time - we had a designated wine person at our table who paired the wine but coordinated the time for each bottle opening like clockwork!”
While she hopes to eat out often, “it’s hard to say as I have enjoyed eating at home and the safety and convenience of that too,” she says. “Meeting friends is always enjoyable, but keeping safe is an ever-present thought. So dining out will certainly not be as carefree an activity as before.”
While chefs are enjoying the spike in business, they’re not breaking out the champagne yet. And for many, delivery will still be part of their new normal. Chef Naleendra is one who feels that the first two weeks will be a high but the real test will come after that. “Without tourism, it’s quite a struggle. And with people still working from home, there won’t be many business meetings either.” Both Cheek and Cloudstreet have been fully booked, but have also lost 10 seats each.
“I would say the spike will go on for another two to four weeks before things settle down,” adds Chef Thevar. “Even so, we need to rethink how we operate our business, in terms of managing all aspects of it.”
There’s also the issue of wage support and rental rebates which will end soon. “We’re still negotiating with our landlords so we don’t know what will happen yet,” says Mr De Vito. Although he will reduce delivery for Amò and Braci, business was good enough that Amò managed to break even in May. “We believe that delivery is here to stay which is why we came up with our casual concept Grammi.”
For Candlenut, “Delivery was very good for us during CB as we managed to break even,” says Chef Lee. “We will continue to do so - it’s the new normal for us.”
Delivery helped The Naked Finn well enough during CB that it managed to retain their entire team at 100 per cent of their pay, says owner Tan Ken Loon. But it will now focus purely on dine-in, leaving the delivery business to sister brand BurgerLabo. He’s cautiously optimistic things are going back to normal, “but it’s still early - I’m sure the economy will make it challenging in the long run.”
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