Pivots, Pop-ups and Predictions: How We’ll Eat in 2021

2020 has changed a lot about how we eat in Sonoma County. What changes will stick and which will go away in the new year?

This was a year that fundamentally altered everything about how we eat. Grocery store shelves went bare. We learned how to make sourdough starter. We cooked for ourselves and we watched restaurants struggle to stay open despite repeated blows to their business models.

In 2021, we’ll still have plenty of fallout to address, but there’s also a lot to look forward to as we move into the future and see what changes will stick, and which will mercifully go away. Hopefully by this time next year, sheltering in place will be a thing of the past and we’ll be toasting together in restaurants, cafes and clubs. But until then, here are some predictions about how we’ll be eating in 2021.

Forget diets: Comfort food will continue to reign supreme, with braised meats and carb overloads. We’ll stick with eating our feelings for awhile because, hey, we’re supporting restaurants! And because sitting in front of a computer all day in your stretchy pants doesn’t really make for strong dieting incentive.

Eat-ertainment: Diners are still craving entertainment and fun with their food, and restaurants are heeding the call. Zoom cooking classes and interactive dinners will continue to be popular as eaters share a meal virtually.

Outdoors is the new indoors: When sheltering-in-place orders subside, we’ll probably be able to eat outdoors again before eating indoors. Throughout the summer and into the late fall, restaurants created fun outdoor oases in parking spots, on sidewalks, on back patios and anywhere a patch of land could support a tent and some heaters. We’ve become more comfortable with the idea of eating outside, and restaurants have gotten better at making outside areas more than an afterthought.

Takeout transformations: The energy it’s taken for restaurants to revamp their kitchens and menus to accommodate takeout won’t disappear anytime soon. Though takeout isn’t a huge moneymaker for high-end restaurants, which rely on the in-person experience, they are seeing a lot of interest in luxe takeout meals. We will continue to see takeout evolve throughout 2021.

Family meals are here to stay: The simple, hearty meal shared by restaurant staff before starting work — the “family meal” — has become a household word as restaurants reacted to the increased interest in takeout from actual families. For moms and dads, it’s a night off from the kitchen and a brief moment of family togetherness that doesn’t involve a computer screen. For restaurants, it’s a simplified menu that’s usually cheaper and easier to make.

Spinster Sisters (thespinstersisters.com) was an early adopter of weekly family-style meals for takeout and is still one of the best. Two favorite family meals of the year were fried chicken and mashed potatoes from Sally Tomatoes (sallytomatoes.com) and a Father’s Day feast from Ricky’s Eastbound (rickyseastbound.com).

Pop-ups continue: Whether it’s a restaurant temporarily changing its menu to be more takeout friendly, a chef doing a delivery-only dinner club or culinary entrepreneurs taking advantage of how we’re eating now (i.e., mostly at home), we’re excited about this clever new class of eats. Among them is Gravenstein Grill’s temporarily makeover into Sonoma Burger (sonomaburger.com) and Pleasant Hill Pie (gravensteingrill.com), eliminating the need for long menus and complicated ingredients and focusing on simple comfort food. Others include Street Social’s “The Coop” traveling fried chicken pop-ups (streetsocial.social), Table Culture Provision’s (tcprovision.com) weekly pop-up kitchen in Petaluma, Noodle Spring Ramen from Sondra Bernstein’s girl and the fig team (noodlespring.com) and Wild Bird fried chicken takeout at the Flamingo Resort (flamingohotel.com). Also impressive are specialty companies like Tilted Platter’s charcuterie boards, family-run Ethel’s Bagels (ethelsbagels.com) and Wooden Petal pretzels (woodenpetal.com) that focus on one thing and do it right.

More Pivots to Come: Local restaurateurs and chefs have been forced to pivot so many times in 2020 that it’s become less of a dance and more of simply spinning in dizzying circles.

Servers masked up and learned more than they cared to about health protocols with each new outbreak. Chefs became construction workers, building thrifty outdoor dining rooms with pallets and reclaimed tents. Each new health order required new business models for delivery and takeout, not to mention filing endless paperwork for financial assistance. Yes, 2020 was a sizzling dumpster fire of agony for everyone in the food business.

But 2021 will bring more confusing directives, and restaurants will have to stay on their toes, whether that means reopening outdoor dining, limiting indoor dining or eventually reopening indoor dining.

Technology advancing: The silver lining for those who can hold out until spring or summer, when life hopefully returns to some semblance of normalcy, is radical progress in technology and efficiency for an industry that’s long needed some disruption.

Restaurants that struggled with a simple Facebook presence now have extensive online ordering systems. Delivery, once the sole domain of pizzerias and Chinese food, is going gourmet and is easier than ever. Michelin-starred restaurants are doing luxury takeout. Social media has become critical to lure diners with glossy, mouthwatering images. Communicating quickly and directly with diners also will become increasingly important as restaurants bank on preorders from repeat guests.

Crowd support: Word-of-mouth has become invaluable for restaurants, especially when those words come with delicious pictures and tasty testimony. Save Sonoma County Restaurants on Facebook has surpassed 20,000 members and has become an invaluable free resource for restaurants and diners to share information about local restaurants. Restaurants like the Gypsy Cafe in Sebastopol (gypsy-cafe.com) have taken to crowdfunding platforms to raise money to support them during hard times.

Never the same again: We can never go back to the halcyon days of restaurant dining again. Too much has changed. We’ve cooked more at home, we’ve seen too many restaurants go under, we’ve tightened our belts and restaurants have fundamentally changed how they do business.