Updated 2 yearss ago
For decades the number 86 on blackboards in restaurant kitchens has meant “we’re out of the special/grouper/scallops/pork chops/whatever for tonight.” The number would be erased the next day when fresh supplies were delivered.
Sadly, the pandemic, government shutdowns and public fears have scrawled a big 86 over whole restaurants this year, and no one knows when or if it can be erased.
Florida’s restaurants and bars were half-open at best until Gov. Ron DeSantis allowed them to open at full capacity in mid-September (although Miami kept the clamps on). Customers began to return slowly, and hosts, servers and chefs kept their masks on.
Yet everyone from owner to server knows half-full isn’t good enough and now roots for dining to return at full strength. When dining rooms are half-full, profits, sales, salaries and tips are half-empty.
Some 600,000 lost their jobs; some are back at work; thousands are not. Hundreds of restaurants, grand establishments and neighborhood fixtures, independent and chain, may not reopen.
Florida caught some breaks with more outdoor dining, less stringent lockdowns and, surprisingly, a boomlet in beach tourism by quarantine-exasperated Americans.
Facing the virus and public fears, Florida restaurateurs masked up and fought back with massive sterilization programs, more take-out and delivery, cooking classes, family meal packages, parking lot seating, temporary popups and pizza, pizza, pizza.
Even the most successful say their restaurants would not have survived without millions in loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, however.
The state’s hospitality industry “is on life support,’’ in the words of Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association.
For now, restaurants that are open wave the flags of the moment, sustainable, local and artisanal, organic, vegan-friendly and Instagrammable (see House of Food Porn in Miami).
Nonetheless, trends have emerged amid the pandemic:
New Italian — Most Italian restaurants, north or south, now have Tuscan gnudi and Sicilian arancini. Richard Gonzmart has a still narrower focus at his new Casa Santo Stefano that salutes the specific town in Sicily that sent so many immigrants to Tampa.
Spice — The hottest new flavors are more than Latin or deep-fried Southern. They are more specific, like Portuguese or Nashville hot.
Middle Eastern — Mediterranean cuisine has expanded eastward past Greece to create more sophisticated restaurants from all over the Middle East. Orlando now has more than a dozen Turkish and Persian restaurants. Miami has more than 20.
Lima Beings — Peruvian is the fastest-growing ethnic cuisine, from the Panhandle to Miami. Its trendiest variant is Nikkei, blending native Peruvian cuisine and cooking brought by its Japanese immigrants.
Veggies — The demand for vegetarian and vegan has gone beyond the impossible at hyperspeed. Vegetable-forward and vegetable-only restaurants have shed Birkenstocks for stylish heels at high-end spots like Le Jardinier, a Wynwood (Miami) shrine to Joel Robuchon, and verdant Lila in Sarasota. Casual veggie lunch spots and acai bowlers spread like kudzu.
... And More Veggies — Mainline meat-centric restaurants today must have rutabagas, radishes and cauliflower (in steaks, tacos and “tater tots”) or they are asleep. Veggie burgers are now a staple.
Florida Seafood — Also beyond meat is a new realization that seafood is a local Florida taste (even if restaurants brag on Scottish salmon and out-of-state oysters). One of the most common categories of new restaurants is fish and oyster bars.
Miami, Dynamic — Miami continues to attract successful concepts and celebrity chefs from the creme de la globe as well as New York. Not all survived: Much-hyped Le Sirenuse from Positano and Obra Kitchen of Venezuela’s Carlos Garcia are now closed. Hometown culinary stars still sparkle: Michael Schwartz has Tigertail + Mary and Amara at Paraiso; Michelle Bernstein has teamed with mixologist supremo Julio Cabrera at Cafe La Trova.
Booze — Alcohol is more important than ever in culinary creativity. Bartenders are more often beverage managers and sometimes partners in charge of fresh bar side kitchens and lengthy cocktail menus. Top restaurants compete not just on wine lists but on bar stock in rare whiskeys, artisan gin and luxe amaro.