As my daughter and I took our first bite of a juicy, perfectly medium-rare burger from Jackson’s Bar & Oven, we both stopped and stared at each other, then slowly began chewing. She broke the silence after looking at the takeout boxes sprawled between us — truffle fries, a wood fired margarita pizza, a glistening Caesar salad — and looking back at me sheepishly.
“I don’t mean to be mean, but I forgot food could taste this good,” she says. My culinary ego bruised, I conceded she was completely and totally right.
For many of us, eating has become more of a chore than a pleasure as restaurant dining rooms remain dark and anything other than fast food takeout is still something of a novelty.
Chefs are still learning, too, how to operate with takeout and delivery the only options. Buns and fries get soggy in transit. Even the most perfect of plating goes awry in a plastic takeout box. Charming small plates in a restaurant seem anemic and sad when they’re swimming in an oversized deli container.
Most of us have forgotten how good food can taste. How transformative mashed potatoes whipped with housemade creme fraiche and cultured butter can be after weeks of ramen from a cardboard cup. Oh, how we’ve forgotten.
Over the last week, I ordered takeout food from three restaurants — Jackson’s Bar and Oven in Santa Rosa, Sushi Kosho in Sebastopol and Barndiva in Healdsburg. None have done big takeout business in the past, instead relying on their well-known eateries to draw in customers looking for well-plated dishes, hospitality, good service and their unique points of view.
After photographing and eating each meal, I spoke to each chef about how they’ve arrived at their “new” normal, which seems to shift daily. Here are their stories.
Jackson’s Bar and Oven
The meal: Wood-fired margarita pizza, truffle fries, “The Burger,” Caesar salad, Jackson’s margarita
The sitch: The restaurant constructed a plexiglass “shield” in front of the bar area and offers most of their menu, including cocktails, to go with almost no contact with staff. Open 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Ordering is by telephone only, at 707-545-6900, with menus online at jacksonsbarandoven.com. 135 Fourth St., Santa Rosa.
The reality: Jackson’s reopened last week after weeks of being closed. Chef/owner Josh Silvers says he was only able to reopen after qualifying for the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program. It’s a complicated and fraught forgivable loan program that covers up to eight weeks of payroll costs. Silvers brought back 15 of his 40 staff. He calls the program a “lifeline from a super-rickety boat” because there’s only so much work to be done with takeout-only ordering.
Silvers says response has been up and down, one day going gangbusters and the next not so much. That much fluidity is challenging after years of steady growth and a recent expansion. “The phone rings and we’re like, ‘Yay! An order!’” he says.
The hope is that the state will ease shelter-in-place orders and allow restaurants to reopen with well-spaced seating. The unique layout of Jackson’s allows for multiple seating areas, and Silvers says he’s crossing his fingers they’ll get the green light in early June.
“I don’t know if people will come, but I know they’re sick of (staying home),” he says.
The meal: Japanese eggplant with sweet miso glaze and walnuts, sesame chicken donburi, “Combination Set” of sashimi, rolls and sushi, miso soup
The sitch: This breezy space in the Barlow has a large table blocking the entrance where pickup orders are placed. Online menu and ordering at sushikoshotogo.com. Pickup 1-8 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. 6750 McKinley St., Sebastopol
The reality: This is the fourth time chef-owner Jake Rand has reopened his restaurant in 18 months. He says he’s a persistent optimist. “I approach every day as if it’s just going to get better. I’d just be paralyzed sitting at home,” he says. Some days have been great, some days have been a setback, but Rand feels he’s making progress with his takeout program that includes fresh sushi and sashimi (which I think is the best in the county), along with approachable poke and donburi bowls, small plates of heart-breakingly good grilled vegetables and sake to go.
Rand says the hardest part of to-go orders for a sushi chef is not interacting with customers. “It’s contrary to what we do as chefs. You react to the order, you read the customer, you interact with the guest. Some people want it all at once, some want to take their time,” he says. The other challenge is working against fixed time limits for orders.
“We don’t make anything in advance, there’s no batch-making sushi,” he says. So if 20 people order for a 6:30 p.m. pickup, they’re scrambling. “When 20 people are waiting for food all at once, that’s a harder beast to handle,” he says.
The meal: Boeuf Bourguignon, shiro-dashi glazed maitake mushrooms, pulled chicken salad, Flirt cocktail
The sitch: Menus change frequently, all items a la carte. Menu and ordering online at shop.barndiva.com or by phone at 707-431-0100. Open noon to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Delivery option in Healdsburg and Geyserville or no-contact pickup (bags set up at table inside doorway). 231 Center St., Healdsburg.
The reality: New chef Jordan Rosas was in the kitchen of Barndiva for exactly two weeks before the county locked down. Having received two Michelin stars at his former Beverly Hills restaurant, Somni, he wasn’t exactly ready to start putting his carefully-crafted dishes into a to-go box.
“The food I like to do, when you put a plastic lid on it, it just disintegrates. I had to really think differently about people and putting a smile on their faces. So we are doing comfort food that’s approachable and carries out well. I put a lot of care into it, and I hope that’s what you’re tasting. So far, we’ve gotten good feedback,” he says.
Barndiva General Manager Lukka Feldman (who is doubling as a delivery driver) is looking for ways he can convey the restaurant’s focus on hospitality in a new way. He’s found a fan base of San Franciscans he’s delivering to in the city for Mother’s Day and is looking for new ways to bring the restaurant to a wider community.
Feldman says the closure of restaurant dining rooms may have a small silver lining in allowing management to examine how they can work on wage disparity between servers and kitchen staff. “The heart of the business is the kitchen. People always talk about working out this disparity, but no one looks at it. We’re trying to rethink how we can make it more fair,” he says.