Cassia Denton and Devin Maier found themselves home for the holidays. They heeded repeated warnings that traveling and mingling with older relatives is too dangerous because of COVID-19. “We have always spent Christmas in Hawaii with Devin’s dad,” Denton says. “He always makes a big meal there. We were not expecting to be here instead.”
The engaged couple, who live in Shaw, turned to Anju to make Christmas Eve feel festive. The Korean restaurant, which typically serves dolsot bibimbap and stews studded with rice cakes, dressed for the occasion. Executive Chef Angel Barreto prepared a $120 feast for two with a beef Wellington the size of a peewee football, chestnut stuffing, kimchi collard greens with pork belly, roasted potatoes in a sweet soy lacquer (gamja jorim), assorted snacks (banchan), and a ginger pear cobbler.
“They did a phenomenal job,” Denton says. “They really put care and attention into it. It wasn’t like, ‘Here’s our normal menu.’” The pair was so impressed that they ordered from Anju again for New Year’s Eve. This time, dinner came with party favors like streamers, beads, and silly hats. Denton posted photos of both dinners on social media, and Anju co-owner Danny Lee responded to express gratitude. “This is a person who is part of my community who is doing what he loves and making the food he loves,” Denton continues. “I got to be a part of that.”
Devastated by the pandemic, local restaurants recognized they had a captive audience this holiday season and responded by experimenting with merry meal packages. In doing so, they proved it’s possible to put hospitality in a box. The payoff was two-fold. D.C. diners ordered in droves, giving restaurants a desperately needed year-end sales boost. Chefs and restaurateurs also report that making isolation a little more palatable for new and regular customers was emotionally satisfying. It’s been 10 months since hospitality professionals felt anything close to warm and fuzzy.
“This was therapeutic for us,” says Lee, who also co-owns CHIKO and Mandu. “We can’t cook for our families, but let’s put that same amount of passion and love that we would for a combined 500 guests through our different restaurants.” After the last customers had picked up their food and drink pairings, Lee turned to social media to reap the rewarding feelings.
Washingtonians snapped and shared many pictures of Anju’s Christmas Eve Wellington coming out of their ovens. It was a risk choosing an entrée with a high level of difficulty. Patrons were required to bake the beef, already cocooned in its pastry shell, for 10 to 12 minutes. “The most common picture was people doing a center slice,” Lee says. “By nature, it’s a blind cook. Even though we had a couple of testers, each piece of protein acts differently. We were very happy once we started seeing guests send in those photos. It’s almost as if we were open for indoor dining and were seeing their reactions from the kitchen.”
CHIKO, Anju, and Mandu sold out of both their Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve packages. Recognizing that even homebound revelers would heavily toast to the end of 2020 on New Year’s Eve, CHIKO added the option to tack on a $20 hangover kit from I Egg You, the Capitol Hill location’s weekend breakfast pop-up. It came with a loaf of milk bread from O Bread, a pound of Logan’s Sausage, a pound of fontina cheese, four eggs, and Bloody Mary mix. “Guests got an email link that night with video content from us,” Lee says. His business partner, Chef Scott Drewno, taught viewers how to make a decadent breakfast sandwich.
Other chefs agree that “wow factor” played a role in their sell-out sensations. Fight Club’s strategy was to package up indulgence. They sold a $100 New Year’s Eve spread with fried chicken, buttermilk biscuits, hot sauce, an ounce of caviar with traditional garnishes, truffle mac and cheese, and banana pudding. “Orders flew out of the gates,” according to Chef Andrew Markert.
He was able to close out some accounts and pay vendors during a precarious time when indoor dining is banned and restaurants are awaiting further financial support. “When we looked at the sales, that’s what hit me,” Markert says. “Seeing how much support we got. It’s about the numbers and surviving another month. Seeing that sigh of relief in the sales reports was like, ‘Fuck, thank god.’”
Because customers have to order holiday meals in advance, the sales boost lasted days or weeks for some restaurants, according to Pop’s SeaBar owner John Manolatos. “You’re collecting money across a seven-day period,” the chef says. “That helps a lot of restaurants. It keeps things moving.”
Pop’s SeaBar had experience with to-go packages prior to the holidays, which worked to their advantage when they got busy. The small bar specializing in beer and $1 oysters has boxed up crab feasts and shrimp boils in the past, as there’s not enough room on-site for such spreads. Like Lee and Markert, Manolatos picked more luxurious products that signify celebration over the holidays.
“Lobster isn’t something that everybody does for Thanksgiving, even though it was probably on the first Thanksgiving table,” Manolatos says. He sold 95 lobster dinners in November. “If I had one more cook, I would have kept adding. For a 1,500-square-foot little bar, it was a great showing.”
Pop’s SeaBar sold lobsters again for Christmas Eve. On both occasions, the crustaceans came with the bar’s typical sides—corn and coleslaw. Manolatos says his experience in retail taught him to “stick with what you do well and don’t try to reinvent yourself for a short sale.” He calls the menu “a little off,” but expresses that he didn’t want to stray too far from Pop’s branding.
That said, Pop’s leveled up for New Year’s Eve. Manolatos stuffed the lobsters with crab and served them as a part of a three-course experience with tuna tartare to start and a simple dessert. “Like all chefs do when they don’t have a pastry chef, they make panna cotta,” he jokes.
Manolatos is grateful to the loyal customers keeping his seafood spot afloat. Most are young singles and couples living in Adams Morgan. “It’s been a godsend that they keep supporting us,” he says. “It was nice to be a part of their holidays. Pop’s usually isn’t part of people’s holiday plans. They usually pick a higher-end place to eat with their parents. We got to play in that pond a little.”
But a crush of sales and mental satisfaction doesn’t come without added elbow grease. Chef Colin McClimans, who co-owns Nina May and its offshoot boxed-meal service Feast, ran into that barrier as his businesses prepared Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve packages.
Juggling on-site dining with not one, but two takeout operations requires more staff than the skeleton crews restaurants have been operating with throughout the pandemic. It also requires more physical space than some of D.C.’s small mom-and-pop restaurants have.
“Doing in-restaurant dining and doing takeout require two skills and set-ups,” McClimans says, relaying his thought process leading up to November. “How much takeout can we do to maximize profit that isn’t going to affect the people we cook for in the restaurant? Do we take over the whole space and not serve anyone in the restaurant? We’re a neighborhood restaurant. We’re supposed to be here for [neighbors] no matter what. What will they think if we close for two days to build takeout boxes?”
McClimans describes the internal tug of war that played out in his head. As an owner, he wanted to strive for more sales, but as a chef, he wanted to pump the brakes so as not to compromise quality. He and his business partner, Danilo Simic, found balance. For example, they delivered Feast boxes in advance of the holiday on Dec. 23, since they keep overnight. This freed up the kitchen to focus on the Feast of the Seven Fishes they offered for more traditional takeout or outdoor dining at Nina May on Dec. 24.
Feast was born out of the unique operating parameters of the pandemic. The boxes find the sweet spot between cooking dinner and ordering takeout. Customers complete 10 minutes of reheating and finishing. “We normally do A to Z, now we’re doing A to N,” McClimans says. Each one comes with instructions and personal notes from the chef detailing the inspiration behind each dish, yet another effort to bring hospitality to the table from a distance.
But before McClimans can put pen to paper, he has to determine the average Washingtonian’s cooking aptitude. “We spend a lot of time testing everything,” he says. Like Lee and Barreto from Anju, who faithfully entrusted diners not to bungle the cook on a Wellington, McClimans put a hard-to-nail lava cake on Feast’s New Year’s Eve menu. Diners had to microwave the confection to the perfect point so chocolate would ooze out of the center once they cut into it.
McClimans tapped his employees to partake in the weekslong testing process because every microwave is different. “Maybe we shouldn’t have done it, but we got great feedback from people,” he says. “For us, that’s the fun. You’re going down these uncharted areas and really trying to make something work.”
The chef also got great feedback on Nina May’s New Year’s Eve menu that included a tomahawk steak. He picked a dramatic cut of meat intentionally. “How we had to pack them in the bags was funny,” McClimans says. A big bone was sticking out. “When people come to see you in a restaurant, you can have all of these special moments, like a pour of prosecco on your anniversary. You can lose that with takeout. Trying to create those ‘wow’ moments is really tough in a to-go container.”
McClimans and others say they’ll continue to swing big given diners’ reliance on takeout is showing no signs of waning as the pandemic stretches on. “It’s going to be a long time until you walk into a busy restaurant and feel super comfortable,” he says. At the same time, the holidays heightened diners’ expectations. “Takeout has changed 100 percent over the last 10 months. All of the options are of such high quality that people will continue to feed this beast.”
“Our job is to make sure people enjoy themselves regardless of whether they’re eating inside pre-pandemic or at home,” Lee chimes in. “Now that restaurants have gotten some reps in, I think we’ll see some more dramatic packages. We’re all trying to provide something besides food and drink to accompany the food you’re taking home. There are numerous ways to do this. We’re just starting to scratch the surface.”
The next big food holiday on the horizon is Valentine’s Day. Restaurants are on the hook for helping romantic partners who’ve been cooped up together for about a year remember why they tolerate each other. The demand is there. Denton, the Shaw resident who doubled down on holiday orders at Anju, says she started Googling Valentine’s Day menus as soon as January hit.