Here's what L.A. dining looks like now - Los Angeles Times
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This is what dining at L.A. restaurants looks like now

Illustrations of sushi conveyor belt, dim sum cart, buffet and salad bar
(Walter Green / For The Times)
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In the last few days — after a months-long shutdown, an abrupt and immediate allowance to reopen their dining rooms and the most significant protests on the streets of Los Angeles in decades — restaurants are beginning to welcome diners inside again, albeit with servers hidden behind face shields and bottles of hand sanitizer where the ketchup used to be.

When we used to talk about “the future of restaurants” — a hoary old chestnut — we looked at trends, cuisines, neighborhoods, chefs or technology. In the past couple of months, there has been rising concern about the viability of restaurants as we’ve known them. But here we want to focus on the physical experience of the restaurant itself — changes that, shy of a triggering event like a pandemic, next to no one was considering at the outset of the year. (Please feel free to email us a link to whatever Reddit board or site on the dark web predicted it all.)

For now, some of the revelry and spontaneity of restaurant culture will be frozen in carbonite. That big 20-person birthday dinner you held every year? Caps on group size say that’s not happening in 2020. The math of more space between tables means fewer seats in restaurants, which will make it that much more challenging to spontaneously check out that falafel/dim sum/tasting menu/fried chicken spot you’ve been wanting to try when you find yourself in a part of the city where you usually aren’t.

Some traditions are actively endangered. Nobody can say when we will all line up haunch to haunch at the buffets again. Big communal dining tables, the seating of choice at church basement dinners and bleeding-edge hipster joints, are currently condemned. The wheels have stopped turning on metal dim sum carts and plates of sushi gliding by on conveyor belts.

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A return to a semblance of “sameness” or “normalcy” is such a fraught concept that we must bracket both of those terms in scare quotes. But for many, being allowed to again eat in public, surrounded by family or friends (or a very limited number of strangers at a municipally dictated distance), are a welcome small step away from where we are right now.

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Sushi

Sushi
(Walter Green / For The Times )

The halcyon days of snagging a spicy tuna roll as it mechanically drifts past your table likely are over.

New food-safety guidelines call for California restaurants to discontinue conveyor-belt food selections, the kind offered at local chains such as Kura Revolving Sushi Bar and Gatten Sushi.

A’Float Sushi, a sushi-go-round restaurant in Old Town Pasadena that had served rolls on floating wooden boats since 1997, closed permanently at the end of February as sales plummeted due to coronavirus concerns. “It’s not an easy business to be in,” owner Julie Yu said.

Kura has yet to reopen for dine-in service, but when it does it will temporarily cease its use of conveyor belts, according to a company statement. Food will be ordered through a touch panel, then prepared and delivered by a server.

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A spokesperson for Kura said that although the company views conveyor belts as “a safer option than those that require additional human interaction,” it plans to strictly follow state and local guidelines. But, it noted, “Operating our restaurants without our conveyor belts will be more difficult.”

Traditional-format sushi restaurants are forced to adjust as well. Due to distancing issues, many will eliminate or restrict counter seating, long the most prized location for aficionados.

When it reopens its sushi counter in the coming weeks, Hamasaku in Brentwood will hang Plexiglas partitions between mask-wearing chefs and diners. Taketoshi Azumi, chef-owner of Shin Sushi in Encino, has eliminated walk-ins for the time being; a reservations-only system will enable him to better stagger diners at his 30-seat restaurant.

An additional point of concern: the use of disposable gloves. “The best sushi is made without gloves,” said Mark Nonoyama, owner of Nozomi Sushi in Torrance. “Our chefs actually wash their hands more often when not wearing them.”

One thing many sushi restaurants, including Nozomi, agree on is that even after they decide to resume dine-in service, they’ll continue to emphasize takeout, usually in the form of artfully arranged bento boxes or chirashi bowls.

“We’ll seat guests, and they can order drinks and appetizers while their sushi is prepared, then they take it away,” Nonoyama said. “It’s not the full experience, but it’s safer.” — Garrett Snyder

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Tableside service

Tableside service
(Walter Green / For The Times )

Before the shutdown, heads would turn at Pasjoli whenever a staffer wheeled out a teak trolley for the Escoffier-inspired floor show of tableside pressed duck. The centerpiece of the ritual, performed by chef-owner Dave Beran or one of his cooks, involved duck organs extracted of their essence in a gleaming silver, baroque crank-driven press; the liquid became a sauce deepened with Bordeaux and Cognac.

The dish’s squeamish drama and frank deliciousness fueled much of the commotion around the opening of the 9-month-old Santa Monica restaurant.

But that kind of courtside spectacle is now on hold indefinitely. State guidelines released this month leave no room for interpretation: “Discontinue tableside food preparation.”

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The rules shelve some beloved and decades-old traditions in Los Angeles dining rooms: no more Caesar salads tossed inches away, or customized guacamole mixed with a side of banter. At Dal Rae in Pico Rivera, the trademark Steak Diane for two and the flambeed bananas — both of which were set ablaze on carts so near to customers that flames could singe your eyebrows — now are prepared out of sight in the kitchen.

For Beran, the tableside-service ban speaks to the broader challenge of maintaining a sense of occasion while prioritizing safety. “People will miss the social aspect of being out — the noise and action of things going on around you. We want to make sure the specialness isn’t lost. That’s the hardest thing about all of this.”

Beran’s plan is to present the duck to customers (assuming that’s allowed) and then perform the carving and pressing at one of the restaurant’s two service tables near the kitchen; a ceremony at a safe distance.

Tableside pressed duck at Pasjoli
Pressed duck will be prepared from a distance at Pasjoli, said chef-owner Dave Beran.
(Allison Zaucha / For The Times)

That’s similar to what Patti Röckenwagner, Hans Röckenwagner and Josiah Citrin envision for Dear John’s, the retro Culver City supper club they revived last year and that reopened on Thursday. Instead of tableside Caesars, composed by suave dining room captain Hank Kelly, the task now is relegated to a spotlighted corner of the 50-seat room. The restaurant also has a new patio built by Hans in a section of the parking lot; the trio commissioned muralist Gary Palmer to replicate the dining room art on an exterior wall, “so we bring the inside out,” Patti said.

“The question is: How do you create a different type of vibe?” she said. “We don’t feel like without tableside all is lost. It’s evolving fast. We’ll have to see what else we can create.” — Bill Addison

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Buffets

Buffet pile
(Walter Green / For The Times )

If you think about the future of post-pandemic dining in categorical terms, the all-you-can-eat buffet waystations of America may well be as doomed as shaking hands.

After 42 years, Souplantation last month closed the doors to its 97 buffet-style restaurants permanently.

Los Angeles magazine called it ‘aggressively mediocre,’ but its simple food and family-style seating reminded me of my Queens childhood.

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Las Vegas shut down its casino buffets until further notice in March. The mountains of self-serve shrimp cocktail, piles of carved-to-order prime rib and do-it-yourself sundae fantasies will be replaced by, well, something, maybe the same thing, but no one has figured out quite what it will look like, or how it will work.

At Pampas Grill at the Original Farmers Market, where customers used to heap mounds of garlic rice, chicken stroganoff and black bean stew themselves, the pay-by-the-pound Brazilian barbecue stall now has an employee spoon out portions according to how much people want; it also has added fixed plates with set amounts of food.

“We really cherish our business model,” spokeswoman Gabriela Kruschewsky said. “We like to give the customer that sort of control over their food and how much they purchase, so I hope it’ll be able to go back. But there’s no timeline for that as of now.”

At the Inn of the Seventh Ray in Topanga, dine-in service restarted on June 4 with “about 70% of our menu,” owner Lucile Yaney said, but its weekend brunch buffet remains closed. An employee said the restaurant hopes to bring it back “when things relax a little.”

Several Indian restaurants have eliminated buffet service and are uncertain if it will ever return in its previous form. In its place, the owners of Mayura in Culver City — which used to offer a $14.99 buffet with more than two dozen items — are offering a new thali combination platter for $15.99.

At the Morongo Casino Resort & Spa in Cabazon, most restaurants and the food court have reopened, but its Potrero Canyon Buffet remains closed until the property reconfigures the 400-seat dining room to half-capacity (as the rest of Morongo’s restaurants now are) and switches to table service.

Shane Driver, director of the resort’s food and beverage service, said it was like “opening up a brand-new casino all over again.”

And the prime rib and crab legs, the buffet’s most popular dishes? They’re “why people come,” Driver said hurriedly before heading back to the kitchen on opening night. “We will not be closed permanently.” He almost shouted it. — Andrea Chang and Amy Scattergood

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Large parties

Occupancy sign
(Walter Green / For The Times )

A sense of community is at the heart of what it means to share a meal at Carousel Middle Eastern restaurant in Glendale. It’s a popular destination for birthday, graduation and anniversary parties, where long tables of families and friends fill the dining room. Diners tear apart pieces of hot pita bread and swipe them through shared bowls of baba ghanoush, while waiters search for ever-shrinking table space to set down a fattoush salad. The celebratory atmosphere is even livelier on weekends, when some of the tables are pushed aside for live music and a belly dancer.

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The restaurant will no longer be able to accommodate parties larger than six due to the county’s new health department regulations. And live entertainment also is prohibited, for now. But despite the change, the restaurant posted a message on Instagram: “We will make the best out of it. Won’t we? Yalla!” — Jenn Harris

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Dim sum carts

Dim sum cart
(Walter Green / For The Times )

Dim sum, the quintessential Cantonese brunch excursion, is all about the commotion. It means families gathered in marble-tiled foyers waiting for a table to free up, grandparents being gently guided to the couple of pleather chairs sitting against the wall and, if you’re lucky, maybe a giant fish tank.

When you’re finally seated, the action begins: Clattering metal carts glide across carpet that dates to the Reagan administration, and amiably pushy ayis foist steamer after steamer of hot shu mai, steaming har gow, delicately wilted gai lan and fluffy bao that resemble memory foam (in a good way). The stacked containers on the table begin to resemble a skyline as the meal wears on. The service is, uh, efficient; have fun getting a glass of water. It’s all part of the experience.

With the state banning carts and not allowing food to be presented out in the open, you can wave a sad goodbye as dim sum carts rattle off into the sunset.

“I have to skip the dim sum carts for the time being,” said David Chan, owner of East Ocean Seafood in Alameda. “People will have to order a la carte.”

At Seafood Cove and Seafood Cove 2 in Orange County, co-owner Eddie Lai said he too will do away with the carts even though it will disappoint some customers. Instead of ordering from the carts, diners will use paper menus.

“We want to follow all the guidelines and rules to keep our customers and team safe,” he said.

“It takes away from the nostalgia of going to dim sum, where you can see all the choices in front of you.”

Lai and his team have made further changes, including removing tables from the restaurants and limiting the number of people per table. It’s unclear when he’ll be able to reopen the dining room but he’s tentatively planning for around Father’s Day. “We’re really anxious to open. We’re ready to see our regulars.” — Lucas Kwan Peterson

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Communal tables

Communal tables
(Walter Green / For The Times )

The last time I was at Hotville, Kim Prince’s hot-chicken restaurant at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw mall, 15 mailmen sat opposite the kitchen at a makeshift communal table made by pushing several smaller ones together. Their mouths were rimmed red with spice and dozens of stained napkins were scattered among the plates of chicken carcasses.

Prince says communal dining and camaraderie are essential to eating hot chicken, but she won’t be able to host big groups inside like that anymore. She has separated the individual tables and predicts communal dining will move outside.

Already, she has watched groups gather in the parking lot opposite the restaurant with their takeout orders.

“People get our chicken, then go eat on the hoods or trunk of their car,” she said. “This is the new family table. I think the car manufacturers need to be inspired to come up with trays or something for the cars.”

Kim Prince of Hotville and Johnny Ray Zone of Howlin’ Ray’s share hot chicken insights in the premiere of our ‘Bucket List’ fried chicken show.

At Lukshon in Culver City, owner Sang Yoon will no longer seat anyone at the large communal tables opposite the bar area inside. And at his Father’s Office locations, where diners order at the counter and then seat themselves, he will block off tables and chairs to keep groups small and add more seats outside.

“We’re also thinking about doing a carhop tailgate situation,” Yoon said. “Your car is your table.”

At Philippe the Original in downtown, customers typically wait in long lines for French dip sandwiches and pack the communal tables across from the counter. To promote social distancing, manager/partner Andrew Binder remodeled to create a barrier between the order counter and the tables in the dining room.

“It’s difficult to change anything when you have generations of customers used to something,” he said. “But we’re using this as an opportunity.”

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Philippe the Original
Customers typically wait in lines near communal tables at Philippe the Original, but that will change. To promote social distancing, barriers have been created between the counter and tables.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Some restaurant owners want to let diners take the lead.

The majority of the seating at Wurstküche in the Arts District is communal at long tables meant to accommodate 15 to 20 people. Owner Joseph Pitruzzelli said he has no plans to change the seating arrangements.

“Adults will get to decide how close they get to sit with other people and whether or not they want to go out,” he said. “As much as we are required to, we will enforce some sort of distancing, but beyond that, it’s up to the patrons.”

— Jenn Harris

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Teppanyaki

Teppanyaki
(Walter Green / For The Times )

Shogun, a teppanyaki-style restaurant in Pasadena, is known for dinner and a tableside show. Cooks make volcanoes out of stacked onion slices and form fried rice into heart shapes that, with the aid of oversized spatulas and thumping music, appear to be beating. Its tables, outfitted with a center area for a chef and a cooking hood above, typically seat eight people, often diners from multiple parties.

In preparing to reopen the dining room in the coming weeks, manager Daniel Santillan said the restaurant is replacing the tables and hoods with smaller ones that will seat parties of up to four or six people.

And there will no longer be any mixing of groups at a table. In the back area, where the restaurant typically held private banquets, a single, larger party may be accommodated.

As for the onion volcanoes? The tableside cooking with a show will continue.

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“With any table, our chef is a good amount of distance from people,” Santillan said.

— Jenn Harris

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Salad bars

Salad bar
(Walter Green / For The Times )

An unsupervised food station where customers help themselves using shared serving spoons and tongs is like a cartoon depiction of everything COVID-19-era food-safety measures seek to avoid. As such, the future of self-service salad bars, fixtures of high-end grocery stores such as Whole Foods and Gelson’s, is currently bleak.

Salad bars were removed at grocery stores across the state after shelter-in-place restrictions went into effect. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health currently prohibits them and any other “self-service of unpackaged food.” Gov. Gavin Newsom’s broad guidelines for reopening California restaurants doesn’t outright prohibit salad bars but recommends closing down self-service food stations.

They will reopen eventually at Gelson’s “but with new safety measures,” said Paul Kneeland, executive director of fresh operations at the grocery store chain, which has 27 locations in Southern California.

There will be fewer items at first, because the food will be spaced out along the 10-foot salad bars. Serving utensils will be swapped out every 30 minutes, and there will be disposable gloves and hand sanitation stations positioned at the ends of the bars. Customers will be directed to move along the salad bar in a single direction to prevent “double-dipping” (and don’t even think about sampling).

Eddy Winston, who owns Mrs. Winston’s Salad & Juice Bar, plans to scrap the self-service model altogether, at least for now.

The market-cafe, which has four L.A. locations, built its reputation on a 200-plus-ingredient self-serve salad bar stocked with more than 15 types of greens, 15 salad dressings, seven cheeses and dozens of toppings.

Winston plans to turn the cafes into a fast-casual, build-your-own salad joints where diners order and customize their salads online and pick them up at the cafe.

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“Once people feel more comfortable coming inside again, I think we’ll pivot from a self-service model to one where our employees fill the salad containers for customers,” he said.

Eventually, once effective treatment for COVID-19 becomes widely available, he expects the self-service salad bar to make a full comeback. Salad bars have already survived MERS, SARS, lettuce contamination and other health scares, he said.

“People want to eat healthy. Salad bars are not going away forever,” he said.

— Patricia Escárcega

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Korean barbecue

Korean barbecue
(Walter Green / For The Times )

A boisterous group of friends packed around a table-top grill surrounded by a colorful array of banchan, condiments and a cavalcade of marbled meats. Hunks of short rib, brisket and pork belly sizzle and pop inches away. A server — your vigilant meat chauffeur — carefully tends the grill, cooking and then shearing off bite-sized portions for hungry diners.

Jenee Kim, chef-owner of Park’s BBQ in Koreatown, hopes to maintain some of the most integral aspects of Korean barbecue while adjusting to new realities.

“We’re just trying to change as much as possible,” she said. That includes digital menus that customers access by scanning QR codes. Kim also ordered tongs from Korea for each diner to use — an extra degree of separation to limit contact between chopsticks and shared plates.

Many Korean barbecue restaurants will have to rethink having servers grill meat at tables. At Park’s, Kim plans to let diners decide; if they choose to grill themselves, she’s considering printing instructions on disposable paper placemats.

Kim plans to reduce her 180-person occupancy and improve physical distancing by having fewer employees and installing movable partitions. Rearranging tables isn’t an option for many Korean barbecue restaurants, she said, because most have built-in grills and vents.

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Korean barbecue at Park's BBQ
Diners will be given individual tongs with which to grill meat and serve themselves banchan at Park’s BBQ in Koreatown.
(Bret Hartman / For The Times)

“I talked to some people, the owners, and they’re very worried about how it’s going to be,” Kim said. “The all-you-can-eats, you have to downsize the occupancy. That’s going to be hard to do.”

Kim considered reducing the variety of banchan and serving them in bento box-style trays, but she changed her mind after trying it out with her staff.

“On that tray, I can get a maximum of seven side dishes,” Kim said. “Not really fun, and it’s not really Korean tradition to do that.”

— Brian Park

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Ethiopian restaurants

Ethiopian takeout
(Walter Green / For The Times )

Communality defines Ethiopian dining — eating with one’s right hand, gathered around a mesob (a tall woven basket) or a table with friends and family, a platter overlaid with injera and arrayed with doro wat, berbere-spiced lentils, collards with fresh cheese and other staple meats and vegetables.

The custom reaches back thousands of years. Even in the face of COVID-19, owners of Ethiopian restaurants in Los Angeles say they can’t conceive of presenting their food in any other way.

“Our way of eating has not been Westernized,” says Frey Tilahun, who runs Lalibela in Little Ethiopia with her mother, owner Tenagne Belachew, and her sisters. “You can’t individualize the elements of the cuisine without stripping out its essence.”

So Tilahun and her family won’t modify their in-house style of dining. They’ll concentrate instead on their growing takeout business — more effectively packaging dishes to be reheated separately at ag亚洲只为非凡home and served on injera. A market is in the works that will fill half the dining room, stocked with items such as niter kibbeh, the spiced clarified butter vital to so many dishes, and the restaurant’s ag亚洲只为非凡homemade honey wine.

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The inconceivability of altering the traditional dining style is prevalent among owners of Ethiopian restaurants I contacted. Rahel Woldmedhin, who owns Rahel Ethiopian Vegan Cuisine and founded next-door restaurant Messob nearly 30 years ago, is one who does plan to concede to change: Her staff will fill individual plates for customers, chosen from menus that list the daily dishes on the restaurant’s buffet.

— Bill Addison

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Matchbooks

Restaurant matchbook
(Walter Green / For The Times )

Sequestered far away from Southern California, I’ve been lighting the morning fires in my woodstove with a dwindling collection of matchbooks from Los Angeles. I just finished a black box of Go Get Em Tiger matches that I copped from the coffee bar at an event at the Million Dollar Theater; I remember right after I stuffed a couple of them in my pocket I ran into chef Carlos Salgado, and we chatted in an alley behind the theater as a photographer took his portrait.

Matches are more my speed than those red-and-white mints in the twisty plastic but, for the immediate future, all manner of semiconsumable/disposable restaurant souvenirs in California are on the chopping block, a concession to COVID-19’s rapacious hunger for all the little things that make life worth living.

I hadn’t thought about Carlos and the night when I got the matchbook until I was down to match No. 2, and then I started to get sentimental. The physical flotsam of the restaurant experience is totemic, a counterfoil for even the most addled of memories.

Pens that come with the check (and end up with us after) might remind you of a night you took a friend out for doing something nice for you; a used and forgotten toothpick from the chunky Plexiglas dispenser next to the register at the Vietnamese place that serves a seven-way beef menu will remind you of some part of that night when you’re emptying out your jeans pocket for the wash and it stabs you under your fingernail.

Guidelines prohibit the profligate dispensation of such items to our greedy fingers, but one can hope that at some point they will return. I am incredibly eager to go eat the fried chicken sandwich at Kismet again but, for me, those little Wiener Werkstätte-looking matchboxes you get to steal after you eat it make it taste just a little bit better.

— Peter Meehan