A few weeks ago, a couple from Northern Virginia experienced the ultimate takeout meal from Old Town Alexandria’s Restaurant Eve. The woman called in to order the restaurant’s five-course tasting menu for an intimate dinner with her fiancé. A passengerless cab arrived to shuttle the food to its nearby destination. “They didn’t even want to leave to come pick it up,” laughs Eve co-owner Meshelle Armstrong.
Chef Cathal Armstrong sent the pair gnocchi, pork belly, venison, foie gras, and a cheese course. There’s a reason why Meshelle remembers this particular order. It was a rare exception to Eve’s no-carryout rule, made in deference to the caller’s fiancé, who had just returned from duty in Iraq. For the unenlisted, the Armstrongs won’t allow to-go orders. It might not be the best business strategy: Meshelle admits that “it would be easier for us [if we did takeout]; we could make money faster.”
But she and her husband don’t feel right charging full price for only part of the Restaurant Eve experience, she says. They simply “don’t want the food to travel.”
And who would, given what food usually has to travel in? The container industry offers restaurateurs few choices, mainly the aluminum pan with the crimp-on top, the black plastic container with the clear snap-on lid, and the Styrofoam clamshell. The classic foam vessel is tailor-made for the average burger and fries, but complaints about polystyrene among gourmet restaurateurs are many:
•“Styrofoam sweats too much,” says Meshelle Armstrong.
•“Styrofoam changes the flavor of the food,” says Jason Sullivan, general manager of BlackSalt Restaurant and Fish Market.
•“Styrofoam is totally environmentally unfriendly,” says Johnny’s Half Shell general manager James LaMontagne.
Galileo bucks popular opinion, sending out its famous pastas in Styrofoam—albeit bolstered by additional plastics. “We wrap the [Styrofoam] in plastic to prevent spills,” says general manager Alysa Lebeau Reich. It’s an enterprise that keeps juices contained but makes for an awkward entry. Finding the edge of the cling wrap requires tilted inspections; there’s even more jostling when the unraveling begins.
The sight of a $17 scallop appetizer flung up against the side of a Styrofoam container is almost indecent. No matter how tender and sweet the seafood is, spending so much money seems frivolous when you look at a self-plated dish, with sauce that should be in an elegant pool below now drizzled sloppily from above.
Black plastic sends the message that a restaurant cares enough to send its meals off into the world with a helmet. It costs about twice as much as Styrofoam, but it’s an investment that can pay off in the long run. David Baker, a delivery guy for AlaCarte Express, can attest to the container’s value. He hit a pothole while making a delivery from Delhi Dhaba on his moped, he says, and the entire order flew off the back of his bike and slid upside-down along the street. The dishes were packaged in black plastic, and “none of the food dripped out at all!” says Baker. “Which I was most happy about. I didn’t really want to eat [the cost of] $47 of Indian food that had spilled all over the inside of my bag.”
Christine Ryon, manager at AlaCarte, oversees about 38,000 takeout orders a year from 75 restaurants. In her 16 years at the delivery service, she says, “we’ve experienced lots of bad containers” and found that black plastic ones are “hands-down the best.” Ryon has a vested interest in the durability of the containers that restaurants choose: Her business is often held responsible for food that’s spilled or ruined in transit.
An upscale restaurant certainly can’t build its business on jumbled scallops or toppled napoleons, either, but relinquishing oversight is a risk most places take to keep their customer base happy. Though takeout orders account for only about 10 percent of BlackSalt’s business, Sullivan points out that accommodating remote diners is a must for the small operation: “We’re booked three weeks in advance, and I don’t want to make anyone mad.”
But for the takeout holdouts, a controlled environment is worth the occasional ruffled feather. “[Our food is] designed to eat in our space,” says Carole Greenwood, chef and co-owner of Buck’s Fishing & Camping. “I’m not making Oreos or microwave popcorn….It’s not an apple in a bag, a fry in a piece of tin foil.”
Like the Armstrongs, Greenwood will make the rare exception—though she balks at the “value judgment” that people make of food when its presentation is more efficient than elegant. “There’s this one woman that orders chicken livers for 30 every year,” she says. Buck’s charges $8 for a single serving; a massive quantity of chicken livers for “a couple hundred dollars” just doesn’t look worth the price tag, says Greenwood.
Visual integrity is critical, but maintaining a carryout dish’s other core properties—taste, texture—is often a more pressing challenge. Delicate seafood doesn’t seem as though it would recommend itself to travel, but BlackSalt gets several takeout orders each week, says Sullivan. Because of BlackSalt’s market, the staff is well-equipped to deal with over-the-counter service, taking special precautions to undercook fish to avoid dry-out and to steer customers clear of dishes that could become soggy, tactics that Galileo employs, as well. “We do try to discourage the fried foods,” says Sullivan. If fried clams have to travel a significant distance, “there’s no way they’ll stay crispy.”
Danny Boylen has his own method for ensuring that the takeout he orders is as true as possible. “When I get [takeout] pizza, I’ll tell them to leave the box open,” he says. “It won’t be hot, but I can just pop it in the oven. It’ll be closer to what it’s supposed to taste like.” Boylen is general manager at Notti Bianche, a restaurant that adheres to the principle of trading heat for quality. “We use containers that are slightly vented,” he says. “No Styrofoam-clamshell bullshit here.”—Anne Marson
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