When the coronavirus pandemic brought the world to a grinding halt in March 2020, people had time, in excess, to think about their former lives. How did they spend their time, and did they spend it well? Same goes for money — were the mundane activities and meals worth it? A common conversation starter (over Zoom, of course) became “What was the last thing you did before shutdown?” Combing through Lyft ride histories, pinpointing the actual last thing became a twisted party game: that last cup of coffee in a coffee shop, late-night burrito, multi-course meal, or cocktail served by an actual bartender were part of the Before Times.
Throughout the last 15 months of limbo, restaurateurs, chefs, sommeliers, servers, dishwashers, and diners all waited to see what would happen. Would restaurants come back? Can diners conceivably ever crowd into a tiny bistro again and share a charcuterie plate elbow-to-elbow with strangers? The answer, it seems, is yes. Vaccination rates are rising, death rates are dropping, and people are beginning to venture out for dinner, music, movies, and more.
But even if regular restaurant dining is coming back as cities across the country reopen, the question of whether fine dining would also see a comeback — or keep its pre-pandemic relevance — remains. And now, with California only two weeks away from fully reopening, Eater SF is checking in on wine country, from Sonoma to Napa. The famed agricultural region is where many of America’s most lauded wines are produced, but it’s also an idyllic destination for fans of food and wine, where wine tasting experiences and fine dining restaurants are considered integral to the culture and economy.
Chef Kyle Connaughton of three-Michelin-starred SingleThread in Healdsburg is bullish on the return of fine dining. His restaurant has become a beacon of the genre in his small Sonoma Valley town, creating a unique farm-to-table environment that commands adulation from locals and Michelin inspectors alive (the local approval perhaps being the most sought after and elusive).
“It’s roaring back,” says Connaughton. “It’s not trickling back. It’s the busiest we’ve ever been, and the most demand we’ve ever seen.”
Fine dining in wine country is different than in other parts of the country, and restaurants like SingleThread are high-end and high-hospitality, but they’re not necessarily the white tablecloth version that many diners associate with more traditional restaurants like Daniel or Le Bernardin in New York. At SingleThread, diners are part of an interactive conversation with the kitchen and chefs in the dining room, about where the food comes from (down the road on the restaurant’s farm) and who is preparing it.
During the shut-down, Single Thread turned to an elaborate, gorgeous, outdoor dining setup called Usu-zan, a Japanese hot pot-focused experience. A tribute to a mountain near Hokkaido, where Kyle Connaughton and his wife and Single Thread’s head farmer, Katina lived for a period of time. The space was designed by Ken Fulk, creating a seamless experience that SF Chronicle critic Soleil Ho said was worth the trip, calling it “a seat in this make-believe room was as fine a perch as any from which one might consider how fine dining can stay relevant in this day and age.”
The continued, even increased, interest in dining at a restaurant like Single Thread makes sense to Connaughton, particularly based on the laid-back experience diners experience there. Dining out now is all about having fun, relaxing, having boisterous conversation, rather than whispering to one another over their dinner plates.
“We’ve never been a ‘sit up straight and use the right fork and speak in hushed tones’ restaurant,” says Connaughton. “People tend to be a little louder and more casual and we don’t have a jacket requirement. It’s a come as you are and have a good time.”
A year of canceled weddings, honeymoons, birthdays, vacations, and special occasions have resulted in a lot of pent-up celebration energy. Spending $400 on a 10-course meal is an expensive proposition, but still far cheaper than a vacation to Hawai’i in the post-vaccination travel era. Especially for Bay Area diners, who can easily venture to wine country for a transportive fine dining experience without leaving the COVID-conscious environs of Bay Area.
In Napa, the Restaurant at Meadowood was hit with a double whammy when its building burned to the ground during the Glass Incident Fire in September 2020. The swiftly spreading fire destroyed wineries and burned over 36,000 acres in Napa Valley, dealing an already struggling industry a hefty blow, economically and emotionally. Chef Christopher Kostow vowed to rebuild; in the short term, he and his team decamped to Ojai for a previously planned residency at the Farmhouse at Ojai, which ended May 31. Now, his core Meadowood team is working out of Charter Oak, with plans to do a few collaborative dinners around the country in the coming months.
“I’ve never been more confident in the creative and economic viability of fine dining,” Kostow says now. “That’s something we very much learned during the pandemic. People want, and will always want, despite the protestations of some, a heightened and elevated dining experience. At the end of the day, it’s a celebration of beauty, and I hope there’s never a time when that’s a concept that will become passé.”
Meanwhile, Kostow’s other restaurant, the more casual but still high-end Charter Oak, has been operating at max capacity. Its ample outdoor space allowed the restaurant to continue to operate and keep employees working. Kostow says that despite the demand, management made the choice to open only five days a week to keep the team’s work-life balance, despite the fact that reservations would have been booked fully for seven days. “We made a choice based on how much the team should be working,” says Kostow. “We’d rather do things right and go to our full schedule when the staffing permits, though we don’t know when that will be.”
Kostow posits that wine country is a very fertile ground for fine dining for a few reasons: its confluence of wealthy visitors and locals whose life and travel choices are predicated on eating and drinking, combined with an abundance of high-end hotels that provide opportunities to do those projects. “As far as the zeitgeist and economy of [Napa Valley] I think it’s important,” says Kostow. “It keeps the tide high and tries to raise the general bar of things.”
As for the future of the Restaurant at Meadowood, Kostow says the timeline for reopening is “opaque,” but it will reopen in the latter half of the year. A long-term temporary space is currently under construction adjacent to the Meadowood property, where the restaurant will operate until the entirety of the resort is rebuilt.
Meanwhile, Truss, the highly anticipated new restaurant helmed by chef Erik Anderson at the new Four Seasons in Calistoga, is nearing an opening this summer after over a year of delays, both pandemic and construction-related. Anderson, who was most recently the executive chef of Daniel Patterson’s two-Michelin-starred restaurant COI in San Francisco, says that he sees restaurants as a crucial component of the region.
“I think fine dining will never go away, and will always exist in some form or another. I think it’s very important here [in Napa and Sonoma],” Anderson says. “The greatest wine in the country is grown and produced here, the greatest produce is grown here, and it’s the greatest region to work as a chef. I think the two need to go hand in hand.”
It’s also an undeniable job generator, though some restaurants are struggling to staff up as restrictions lift. Many workers have left the hospitality industry entirely, moving from cities to be closer to family, returning to school, and seeking different career paths altogether. Anderson says he needs at least 20 people working full-time to run his kitchen the way it should be run.
“It’s a struggle to find people. I think one thing for sure is that people have second-guessed their careers as is it comes to fine dining and I think a lot of people are going back to school or finding other career paths and I support that fully,” Anderson says. “You have to find whatever makes you happy and what you’re content with but I’ve seen a lot of peers pivot and decide ‘Maybe I don’t want to [work in restaurants anymore].’”
Continuing the conversation on how to improve the workplace is now more key than ever. “There’s that whole thing where the guest comes first and I don’t believe that. The way you have a contented guest is having a happy staff,” he says.
On the diner side, guests’ desires have not changed, says Connaughton.
“You can really feel the energy is just this energy of relief and of appreciation and for getting around the table with whoever they’re choosing to spend time with and letting loose, really having fun,” he says. “I would say the energy level and noise level in the dining room is higher than it’s ever been because people just want to laugh and have a good time and have fun conversations.”
There’s still room to evolve that experience, however, particularly for Meadowood as they start from scratch. It’s a new opportunity to shake things up in the dining room and the kitchen, and tailor that experience to what diners want now. That could mean the length of the experience, the number of courses, and looking for ways to create a more show-stopping experience for guests, many of whom will be venturing into a dining room for the first time in many months.
“I wish I wasn’t in the hospitality side of this moment and I could just be a guest right now and go out and freak out about how awesome that moment is,” Kostow says.