Why some New York restaurants are turning to the tasting menu to survive another pandemic winter


It took jaw-dropping financial losses for chef and owner of Woodside’s Bistro Casa del Chef, Alfonso Zhicay, to give up, scrap his a la carte menu and launch a tasting menu in January. Customer traffic had taken a nosedive, COVID cases were on the rise due to the spread of the omicron variant, and Zhicay found himself throwing away expensive, unsold scallops while watching a 90% drop in sales in November and December. . “We were losing money every night,” says Zhicay.

Not all restaurateurs were on the brink of closure like Zhicay before deciding to toss their a la carte menus, but many were eager to eliminate a host of variables affecting their dinner services and bottom line. Neighborhood spots like the Lower East Side’s Forsythia Italian restaurant, Olmsted in Prospect Heights, and Casa del Chef Bistro in Woodside are now finding some relief in tasting and prix-fixe menus, a more rigid dinner format often associated with expensive gourmet meals. Some owners say that while the change hasn’t necessarily boosted sales, there are other benefits: they’ve been able to reduce food waste, better manage staff shortages, and find more space for creativity in their daily work. .

At trendy pasta restaurant Forsythia, owner Jacob Siwak lets diners choose a handful of menu options for each dish – “I don’t want to serve someone something they don’t like,” says Siwak – but the kitchen can better prepare for unpredictable demands and reduce food waste with a fixed price menu. In the old a la carte format, the 45-seat restaurant routinely saw a dish rise in popularity one night only to fall the next, after the team had already spent time preparing extra orders in anticipation of another night. sold out. The fixed price menu has reduced the need for guesswork and allows the team to prepare more efficiently for each night. “We have more time to prepare new dishes instead of working on the ones we already have,” says Siwak.

Forsythia’s service manager, George Bernard, behind the restaurant bar.
Madeline Mark/Forsythia

While Forsythia still employs the same number of 14 to 15 people, Siwak says the restaurant is better able to handle last-minute staff shortages with the prix fixe menus as work in the kitchen has stabilized and waiters diners don’t have to spend as much time walking through the menu. At Casa del Chef Bistro, Zhicay can now run the restaurant with four employees instead of six on busier weekend evenings.

Zhicay also found that transitioning to a tasting menu allowed more room for creativity in her work. Casa del Chef Bistro’s current menu changes weekly based on what Zhicay finds at the restaurant’s farmers’ markets and suppliers, and with a six-course maximum, he has more time to polish each plate. Soogil Lim, the chef and owner of Soogil in the East Village, has seen similar benefits. Employees mastered skills faster with a smaller menu, and he was able to tweak dishes like foie gras mousse and a fig ice cream dessert topped with dalgona candies. “I can immerse myself and challenge myself to change these dishes for each menu, which allows me to grow,” Lim says in an email.

A dining room with light wood tables and a multi-orb light fixture hanging overhead.

Inside Soogil.
Michael Tulipan/Soogil

Many prepared for a tasting menu to elicit negative reactions among their diners due to the set prices and set food options. Forsythia’s Siwak deliberately designed the restaurant’s prix-fixe menu with two prices – a $75 five-course option in the dining room and a $40 three-course option at the bar – to cater to the two main types of diners. of his restaurant: younger diners who stop by for a drink and a bite to eat as one of the many stops of their evening, and older patrons who treat dining at the restaurant as their main event of the evening, he says. The restaurant’s $40 menu was key to avoiding complaints from those who would prefer the more expensive dining option.

Some customers don’t mind spending more. Soogil turned to a tasting menu in July 2020 when restaurants in town were cruising outdoors only. He started with a sub-$100 tasting menu — it has since risen to $115 for six courses due to rising costs — and anticipated a backlash due to the hike, but was surprised to find that customer receptions were “completely opposite,” Lim said. According to Zhicay, Casa del Chef Bistro’s $69 six-course tasting menu has proven more popular than the $49 three-course abbreviated menu.

A spoon drizzles a sauce over a short rib sitting on a white plate with orange vegetables arranged alongside.

Short rib with Jerusalem artichokes, a dish from the Zhicay tasting menu.
Bistro Casa Del Chef

Yet diners have fewer choices at these reliable neighborhood eateries when deciding how much to spend on dinner. At Olmsted, Eater critic Ryan Sutton notes in a favorable review of the restaurant’s new tasting menu that dinner can now easily cost $150 after factoring in food, drink, tax and tip.

Tasting menus have made enough positive changes that some restaurants like Casa del Chef Bistro and Soogil have pledged never to return to an a la carte setting. Zhicay’s sales have rebounded 60% from the dire situation at the end of last year, he said. According to Lim, sales of tasting menus have gradually increased at Soogil to the point that the restaurant now generates 90% of its revenue in 2019.

Others are still testing the waters. Baxtrom has declared that Olmsted’s change is temporary over the next two slow winter months. Forsythia is still gauging feedback, Siwak says, but he’s happy with the initial response from customers and staff.

“What I’m hoping for is more consistency,” says Siwak. “Not so high in peaks and not so low in valleys.”


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