Restaurant Retrofits Week 3: Food Flashbacks
While this has been a space to look at COVID-era restaurant retrofits and the creative juices of the people who operate them, what’s been front of mind this week are the college seniors graduating later this month. Probably because there’s been a slew of recent articles about the graduating class of 2020 and what they’re collectively missing out on, but also the uncertain future that awaits them. I (sort of) get it. I had just begun my senior year of college on September 11, 2001 and managed to follow that up by graduating architecture school in 2009. It’s an understatement to say neither were particularly good moments to enter the job market. It was a challenging time that I retrospectively appreciate and learned from, but I don’t wish that on any graduating senior. Despite the lack of a job or even job prospects, I moved to Boston when I graduated from college. I remember a lot from that scrappy, formative time, but the food of my 20s, like a memorable summer hit, is something that I will forever associate with this period of my life, and that I’ve found myself craving during these uncertain times.
But here’s the question I’ve been wondering: How are today’s graduates going to spend the next few years and what will be their collective appetite (literally)? What does fast, cheap, and delicious comfort food look like in the post-COVID era? And maybe it’s worthwhile to take a moment to consider the past before rushing to make prophecies about the future…
Twenty years ago we didn’t have Chipotle or Sweetgreen, but we did have El Pelon (1998) and Darwin’s (1993) and Bova’s (1926) and Boca Grande (1986) and Anna’s Taqueria (1995) and, yes, we even had Flour (2000). These all also happen to be locally-owned places that are still around today, almost all with multiple locations built up very gradually over time. This was before fast casual was a thing and before local became a proxy for cool. So twenty years later — has it really been almost twenty years? — I decided to spend the week eating from the aforementioned places, as a means to fuel my nostalgia and sublimate my anxiety, while continuing to conduct field research. I was also pleasantly surprised to discover that they are ALL open and doing seemingly OK. Strategically, this also provided a spotlight on food establishments and bakeries that are already designed mostly for takeaway, with some very limited seating for diners. How have these businesses changed? And how are they doing relative to sit-down restaurants?
Anna’s Taqueria (Porter Square, Cambridge) was my first stop. I ordered on-line for pickup, and was greeted by a big sign in the front window saying that “We are open!” In driving around the city, I have noticed these large, often handmade signs are clearly intended to be read from a moving vehicle. Pre-pandemic, urban signage is and should be geared towards the pedestrian, but has rapidly evolved to be visible at a distance given the comparative absence of foot traffic on the sidewalk. Inside were instructions on how to queue and red “Please Keep Your Distance” stickers on the floor to ensure proper 6 foot spacing. There was also the jerry-rigged use of high chairs to hang signage and direct customers into two lines: one for pickup and delivery, another for takeout. The biggest surprise was the employees were all wearing PPE visors with face shields, a first! They told me they had been provided by their manager. Staff are already semi-protected behind a glass divider, but guidance stanchions were also used to create more buffer between the customer and the food counter. It felt not unlike picking up some sliced meat at the deli counter of the grocery store, where customers are now standing way back from where they used to. I was there on the extremely early side, so didn’t see any others while there, and was in and out in probably a minute.
Darwin’s Ltd (Cambridge) Next up: Darwin’s on Cambridge Street between Harvard and Inman Square. This place elicits serious flashbacks to grad school where I probably ate at least 7-10 times a week. My visit to Darwin’s felt by far the most normal. There were no markings on the floor, although there was some signage in the window. It was lunchtime, and there was some decent walk-in foot traffic. Customers seemed classic Cambridge types, and it still felt like a neighborhood “third place.” I was in a rush, but it felt like a luxury that I could still order (online) two half sandwiches and a molasses chew cookie in the midst of a pandemic. I asked the nice guy (forgot to get his name) how they’re doing. “Business is ok, it helps when the weather is good,” he told me. The most telling signs of COVID were the empty chairs and tables in the back room, and the stark counter near the window where milk and napkins are typically found.
El Pelon (Fenway) El Pelon, for the uninitiated, is a tiny taqueria on a stretch of Peterborough Street in the Fenway that has been a miniature restaurant row for decades, it’s charm directly related to the shared picnic table seating on the extra-wide sidewalk in front. I could easily write an article on the food of this street, which is diverse, quick, and delicious. I lived on this block in the early aughts for three years, and have fond memories of burritos from El Pelon eaten elbow to elbow with strangers out front on the picnic tables and also from inside Fenway Park (despite what anyone says, you’re allowed to bring in food). It was not lost on me that these two memories feel very far outside the realm of possibility given the current reality. There was no one eating at the picnic tables today, but I could imagine a spaced-out scenario that would work during warmer weather. Inside, El Pelon’s layout is already incredibly efficient, but they’ve cleared their space so that it’s even more so; a simple in and out operation, with orders placed on a table in marked bags for delivery company pickups. In talking with Naomi at the front counter, delivery is currently accounting for about 80% of their current business. They haven’t had to lay off any staff, but have recalibrated to work in 4 shifts of 3: one cook, one to prepare orders, and one up front. It’s hard working with a smaller number of staff since during the rush, they don’t have enough staff cooking to keep up with demand. But it’s necessary since the (open) kitchen is small and they are doing their best to adhere to social distancing guidelines. Two things worth mentioning: they’ve made clever use of their tiled floor, which has been helpfully marked off to delineate a 6 foot dimension. And second, I follow them on Instagram and thought it was interesting that they posted their Record of Training certificates for “ServSafe Takeout: COVID-19 Precautions” as a signal and assurance to customers of their preparedness. Lastly, going to El Pelon made me really miss baseball.
Flour (Washington Street, South End): I didn’t get anything to eat from Flour, but I still made a quickie reconnaissance stop at the original Flour on Washington Street in the South End since they seem to be doing brisk business (according to Instagram). Little known fact: Flour’s origin story is directly tied to the disposition of a BRA urban renewal parcel – one of many along Washington Street – that was part of the revitalization of the Washington Street corridor in the South End following the removal of the elevated rail. The then-BRA, now-BPDA (shout out to my former employer!) required a woman or minority-owned business on the ground floor as part of a three-way deal that involved the BRA, the South End Community Health Center, and the developer of the apartment building. Now you know. Even though Flour wasn’t open, you couldn’t miss the now obligatory markings on the ground. Flour has deployed a two-tone system – orange for incoming traffic, yellow for outgoing traffic. Super-visible were the lines, arrows, and x-marks-the-spot directing customer traffic for contactless pickup. I’ll be back for lunch at some point.
Myers + Chang (Washington Street, South End): Even though I didn’t go to Flour this week, I did the next best thing by ordering from Myers + Chang! (2007).After being closed for more than a month, Myers + Chang reopened last week. Currently, Myers + Chang is doing phone orders for pickup only, but plans to add delivery (by Caviar only) soon. It was nice to talk to an actual human on the phone rather than place an impersonal order via an app or website, though I certainly appreciate that convenience. When talking with Rose, she disclosed that she and the other employees are really glad to be back working and to have something to do! They had to lay off all the front of house staff, but they have 8 people working now at the restaurant. When I arrived at my predetermined time, I went to the miniscule side patio facing Peters Park as instructed. Like other places I’ve written about, they’re making use of their side door, but are also using their patio as an outdoor vestibule for a new pandemic pickup protocol. I smiled when I discovered a masked Maneki-neko, the Japanese cat figurine that allegedly brings good luck and fortune, awaiting me at the side door. I couldn’t go in the restaurant, but I did peek in and wave through the main window. Not unlike Sumiao, Myers + Chang has set up a new takeout line, making use of the bar and lining up the dining tables for assembly. I asked Rose when she came out to give me my order how the restaurant space is working, and she explained that they need to use the whole space given the need to spread out. I asked how business is these days, and she admitted they’d love to do more, but they’re limited by the number of staff on premises and available to cook. I couldn’t chat for very long because the next person arrived to pick up their order. A highlight of my pickup experience, though, was not needing to sign for the check.
Bova’s Bakery (North End) As I was leaving Myers + Chang, I considered a brief stop at Bova’s, famously open 24 hours, a neverending font of cannoli, sfogliatelle, and whoopie pies…I wondered, can you just walk in or do you have to order ahead of time? Bova’s is not the sort of place that does – or even contemplates – timed pickups, but because a trip to Bova’s is categorically an impulse trip, I decided to simply show up. Not a problem, as it turns out, because miraculously there is parking to be found in the North End these days. Bova’s was not only open, but busy! Vicky Bova-Kluse, one of the owners, was there and happy to talk with me. She was chatty with me and the other customers, in good spirits, and seemingly on autopilot. She told me that Bova’s was doing alright all things considered. They still have plenty of foot traffic, and haven’t had to lay anyone off. I was incredulous to learn that they are still open 24 hours. Vickie explained that there are lots of hospital staff (presumably MGH) that finish their shifts late at night and come in around 2 am. She thinks the sweets help keep them going. Several people came in and out while I was there (including a hospital worker) and it was nice to see signs of life in the North End. Across the street, several guys were hanging an “Open for Takeout” sign in front of Monica’s Trattoria. I feel more optimistic about the North End than I do Chinatown. I bought two plain cannoli and a slice of red velvet cake.
Now that it’s been a couple of weeks, I feel more comfortable making more pointed observations and preliminary speculations about what the future may hold.
First of all, back of house staff is more valuable than front of house staff during a pandemic. Perhaps this crisis may finally catalyze the long-overdue correction on more equitable distribution of payment between front and back of house staff.
Second, floor markings are now ubiquitous. I can’t help but wonder if tile floors are going to see a resurgence, a visual heuristic for 6 foot pandemic protocols? Regardless, I think we’re going to see a creative outpouring of amazing floor designs, many riffing on the social distancing necessary to keep the virus at bay. By extension, those designs could and most likely will get translated into the public realm.
Third, having a secondary door is incredibly useful. Every place I visited that has one has used it, and it’s made for a much cleaner and more efficient pickup experience.
Lastly, takeaway restaurants seem to be doing better than sit down restaurants. The people I spoke to at these places are giving their all to keep their place afloat, and, at least for the time being, are succeeding. Given that seating and high occupancy establishments will be seen as a liability rather than an asset in the near future (at least until there is widespread testing or a vaccine, the latter which is likely much further out), I’m going to bet that these leaner operations will be seen as potentially more viable tenants. I wish talking with people wasn’t made so awkward by wearing a mask, but I am deeply appreciative of the effort and the food that these establishments are continuing to offer against all odds. I’m hopeful they’ll be around for the class of 2020.
- Anna's Taqueria
- Bova's Bakery
- Corey Zehngebot
- Darwin's Ltd
- El Pelon
- Myers + Chang
- Restaurant Retrofit