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The New Face of Dining Out

How Northwest restaurants are redefining the face of traditional restaurant dining

By Abigail Thorpe

If COVID-19 has altered many things in our day-to-day lives, perhaps one most noticeable in our social lives is the restaurant scene. New laws and concerns over protecting the health of both patrons and staff have completely changed the way we dine out, perhaps forever. But this doesn’t mean the changes are all for the worse. To face the challenges of the times, restaurants have had to adapt—in many ways just to stay alive, but also to redefine and expand what we traditionally think of as “going out.”

In many ways it has blurred the lines between cooking at home or dining out. From more spacious dining rooms to expanded outdoor seating, creative dining concepts and food trucks, our Northwest restaurateurs have redefined the experience of eating out. Here are some of the ways they’ve brought positive change to an industry that is currently facing so many hurdles.

Meal Kits

When restaurants completely closed down to dine-in options during the pandemic, many responded with creative take-home meal kit options for individuals and families to prepare meals (or cocktails) at home. Addo in Seattle sold sought-after tasting menus (booked in advance) before COVID-19. Owner and chef Eric Rivera quickly pivoted to an innovative new meal kit delivery program: He’d deliver the ingredients and groceries, and “diners” could jump on zoom to learn how to prepare the meal together. The meal kit trend has continued, and they still offer a Chef’s Choice Five Course Dinner at Home option.

But it’s not just family or five course meal kits that are hitting the menu—make-at-home cocktail kits have become standard for many restaurants in the Northwest, particularly as restaurants experience early closing hours or limited on-premise dining and alcohol consumption.

Food Trucks

Food trucks have been having a moment for a while, and COVID has only stoked that fire. With limited guest/staff interaction and a naturally socially distanced outdoor environment, food trucks provide the perfect option to dine out of home, typically on the cheap. You can find them springing up everywhere throughout towns and cities in the Northwest—like Prairie Pavilion in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, an outdoor food truck court where customers can source everything from burritos and coffee to tacos, pizzas and healthy eats.

Even drive-up food truck options became the solution for fair food lovers looking to get their fix in face of a canceled North Idaho Fair: Fair Food Fix allowed visitors to drive-up to all of their favorite fair food vendors for a safe fill of their once-a-year fix.

Drive-Through Concepts for Fine Dining

In many areas, fine dining establishments had to change their offerings, and fast. But the results in many cases were (and still are) positive. Canlis in Seattle shut down its dining room in March—recognizing fine dining was not what Seattle needed. Instead, they offered drive-through bagel and breakfast sandwiches in the morning, and burgers, salads and ice-cream in the afternoon and evenings.

Today, you can find family meal kits available from the beloved fine-dining establishment, along with the Crab Shack—an outdoor restaurant in their parking lot featuring buckets of crabs and “copious amounts of hand sanitizer.”

Pre-order and Mobile Options

Mobile has completely transformed the way we transact business at restaurants—from mobile ordering apps for everything from your favorite local coffee (think the Joe Coffee app for all you Evans Brothers fans) to full dinners, it’s never been easier to order food to go in advance. Even as restaurants have started opening in-house dining, the mobile trend has carried into the establishment. Rather than waste paper menus that have to be thrown away after each use, many restaurants—like Pend d’Oreille Winery in Sandpoint—are opting for digital barcode menu options people only need a smartphone to access.

Merged Dining Concepts

A new concept of dining that benefits a local nonprofit is taking center stage in Spokane: Bark, a Rescue Pub was opened by the owner of Nectar Catering and Events. Patrons can enjoy a meal and a cocktail while meeting their future best fur friend at the world’s first concept combination restaurant with a pet adoption service, in partnership with the Spokane Humane Society. This concept of merging dining experiences with other experiences is something people look for more and more: not just a night out, but a unique experience.

Outdoor Expansion

Outdoor dining is having a moment—a big moment. From expanding seating into parking lots and vacant lots, to adding new outdoor spaces, restaurants are looking for ways to keep the experience outdoors—particularly in establishments currently not offering indoor dining. At places like Matchwood Brewing in Sandpoint, patrons came to expect (and love) the large outdoor space that allowed the brews and food to still flow while indoor seating was still closed. With winter approaching, many restaurants are finding ways to keep the outdoors alive: from covered patios to heat lamps and igloos, and everything in between.

Takeout and Delivery

Takeout and delivery are here to stay. They’ve become a staple in our diet, and even restaurants that didn’t used to offer takeout options now offer some type of take-home, even if the menu is more limited or ever-changing.

The dining experience we knew before has changed—and still is evolving before our eyes. But with all of the chaos, change and uncertainty, one thing is for sure: Restaurants will find a way to keep our stomachs full and our hearts happy, one way or another.

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