We put this year’s edition of GQ’s Best New Restaurants in America to bed in mid-March, six weeks and a lifetime ago. At that moment, it was impossible to predict where in the ongoing story of the coronavirus’s impact on restaurants we would be when the list finally saw the light of day. As it happens, it feels like an inflection point: Last week brought an ominous wave of announcements from restaurants that would be closing for good (including one from our list), mixed with news of others, in a handful of states, beginning to reopen. It’s only one measure of the strangeness of our times that both things were sources of anxiety, mixed-feelings and some grief.
As I explain in the essay accompanying my Best New Restaurants list, we decided to go ahead with publishing it in order to celebrate all the wild diversity, ingenuity and creativity of America’s restaurant community. And, as you can see in the video below, featuring footage shot by some of the chefs and owners celebrated in this year’s list, the crisis has been a chance for restaurateurs to demonstrate, one again, exactly those traits. All the effort and imagination that once might have gone into creating a new sauce or a novel fish preparation have instead been directed at a very different set of problems: How to do take-out safely. How to keep employees healthy. How to keep them paid. How to navigate government loan programs. How a restaurant can become a food bank, a grocery store, a drive-thru, an emergency response center. How to plan for a still-utterly-unknown future? A restaurant operating at its peak is like a beautiful, athletic body—an organism whose motion barely suggests the universe of intricate, interconnected systems pulsating just below the surface. These weeks have laid those inner workings bare, revealing all of the beauty and fragility and strength that lies under the skin.
But we also knew that creativity and ingenuity and hard work and love were not going to be enough in every case. Early in March, chef Eric Bost began making plans for his Hollywood restaurant, Auburn, that he hoped would allow the business to survive. He and his partners, who opened the restaurant almost exactly a year before, made two resolutions: They would keep all of their employees on their health plan, and they would not declare bankruptcy, in order to not default on their chain of farmers, wholesalers and other suppliers. On March 15, Bost and his team packed and preserved as much food as they could, sending much of it home with staff. Then, with a skeleton crew, Auburn pivoted to take-out, offering a set meal each week, with curbside pick-up. Later, Bost and his pastry chef created bake-at-home croissant kits, complete with an egg wash and parchment. It was all working—well enough that Bost was actually able to hire another sous chef—but still only approaching 10-20 percent of pre-coronavirus business. Eventually, Bost and partners had to take a hard look at the numbers. Even the most optimistic visions of the future involved reduced capacity in dining rooms, not to mention uncertainty over who would be dining out and what they might want or be able to afford. Auburn—which featured a live tree growing from the center of its graceful dining room—had been expensive to build in the first place, and the idea of adding to that existing debt was daunting.
On Thursday, Bost announced that Auburn would close for good.
“Reinvention is recapitalization, and recapitalization is risk. And it has to come from somewhere,” Bost said, when we talked soon after the announcement. “In the end, it was insurmountable for us.”
Now, he said, comes a mourning period but then, he hopes, a new beginning: “I love to work. I’ll continue to find like-minded people who are ready to join in the next adventure.”
Meanwhile, on the same day that Auburn shut its doors, the Facebook page for another of the restaurants celebrated on our list—The Jerk Shack, in San Antonio—announced a “Grand Opening” for May 11. Texas is one of the states pushing the envelope when it comes to easing social distancing and The Jerk Shack, which has only outdoor seating, is among the easier restaurant types to imagine returning to form. When I talked to chef and owner Nicola Massey, she clarified that the May 11 date was more of a wish than a definite plan. She, like restaurateurs throughout states rushing to reopen, is in the bizarro position of deciding how much less to do than what government guidelines recommend. “In the end, it’s going to be about what is safe for my staff and our customers,” she said.
Massey also had opening news of a different sort: She and her husband are going ahead with plans to open a new restaurant, within a few weeks. Mi Roti will serve flaky Caribbean flatbreads stuffed with fillings like chicken tikka masala, to-go, from a space in The Pearl, a mixed-use development near the San Antonio Riverwalk and the Culinary Institute of America, where Massey studied.
It is a heartening bet on the future, bested only by the other thing the couple has brought into this world in the midst of this dark time: Champion Apollo Massey, a healthy baby boy, born April 12, and blessed with a name that suggests he’s capable of facing all that lies ahead.
Just before the world went sideways, Brett Martin wrapped up a journey that would be impossible today: visiting 23 cities and 93 restaurants, in search of the most exhilarating new places to eat. What he discovered was a glorious representation of the “anything goes” spirit of American dining prior to the crisis. When we can all gather again, these are the first places to book a table. (And to read Brett Martin on how GQ's Best New Restaurants are coping with the pandemic, go here.)
Originally Appeared on GQ