As restaurants across the country plan their reopenings, most are looking at a future of thermal cameras, plexiglass separators, and designer masks.
But at least one major New York restaurant sees the past as the way forward.

Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria is bringing back their beloved chef Justin Smillie to take over the kitchen and oversee its market. Smilie is leaving Upland, Stephen Starr’s Cal-Italian dining room in Manhattan’s Flatiron District to take the job. His return to a neighborhood restaurant reflects the sense of uncertainty that hangs over destination dining rooms that depended on business expense accounts and tourism. 

At Alimentari, Smillie isn’t looking to reinvent the menu, as many chefs do when they take over a kitchen. Instead, he’ll continue to serve the spit-roasted, peppercorn-rubbed short ribs and bucatini cacio e pepe that put the place on the map, focusing his time with owner Donna Lennard on expanding the market at the restaurant’s entrance that most people ignored.

“More than the idea that we’re going to revolutionize the menu, we’re trying to rebuild our business and see what it can look like,” says Lennard.  She and Smillie are enhancing the meat section, for instance, adding what they call “a concierge butcher” for specific cuts, as well as options such as porchetta, shoulder roll roast, and fresh sausages.

The deli display and shelves take up about one-fifth of the restaurant space; prior to the pandemic, these accounted for only 10% to 15% of sales, says Lennard. Market sales now make up 50% to 60% of business at the restaurant, which reopened a week ago. “And then, if it settles at 25 to 30% of our business, that will be amazing,” she says.

Shopping for Dairy Cases
Il Buco has a built-in grocery store to take advantage of. But the hybrid restaurant-grocery store (and wine and liquor, too) has become such a viable model for struggling places that several are planning to keep it going, even when restrictions start lifting. In Red Hook, Brooklyn, the popular bar and café Fort Defiance has transitioned to Fort Defiance General Store and that move could be permanent.

“I have a bad feeling about operating as a full service bar and restaurant again,” says owner St. John Frizell.

He now stocks 150 items for pickup, including pork chili that was key to a huevos rancheros entrée, as well as honey from Lancaster, Pa., and gelato made down the street. Frizell is also investing in grocery store equipment: He’s shopping for a $6,000 chicken rotisserie and $3,000 dairy cases.

“I’m making a new floor plan, and then I’m going to hit the restaurant auctions. Unfortunately, there will be lots of those,” he says. Frizell plans to have just one or two tables inside—the space used to seat 42 people—along with outdoor seating, a hot topic in the city at the moment.

“It will be a weird place where you can get a daiquiri and a tin of sardines at the same time, but the neighborhood has been coming,” he says.

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