By Brenda from The Whet Palette

The last couple of dinners I enjoyed, the weekend before the current COVID-19 quarantine began, told two very different stories. Sadly, both had the same ending. The first, a new small restaurant by a young local chef, started to find its groove. I looked around that Friday night and noticed that unmistakeable song and dance performed to perfection by all. The staff flowed effortlessly from here to there, and dishes appeared and disappeared at the right times. The happy clink of glasses could be heard continuously, as well as the chatter and cheer of joyous guests enjoying their night.

The second restaurant, a large heavily-funded fine dining mecca inside one of the ritziest hotels in the city, functioned similarly. By Saturday, diners grew a tad weary, and sanitizer was readily available from the valet stand to the bathrooms. The party of two seated nearby assured me they, "...were healthy and didn't have the virus." Still, the scene inside mirrored the previous night. Both locations represented South Florida's vibrant dining scene perfectly, one that was crushing goals and stereotypes.

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By Monday morning, the magic abruptly disappeared and affected every establishment, regardless of size and budget: closed. It has been heartbreaking to witness the rise and fall of our restaurants. Our city collectively held its breath for a few days, and then slowly began to exhale, as a new Miami norm emerged.

Fast-food spots closed their dining rooms, but continued takeout, drive-thru, and delivery services, as usual. Cautious at first, smaller restaurants unique to the area started offering takeout and delivery options based on heavily modified menus — some, mere shadows of their original concepts. To battle large national delivery concepts, owners also strongly encouraged takeout and personally took the wheel to deliver their goods themselves.

Naturally, business owners reacted quickly. Chef Bradley Kilgore combined several of his locations (Alter, Kaido/Ama, and Ember) into one as AlterQ. The casual fine dining (read: multi-course experiences) this James Beard finalist is well known for is gone for now, and comfort eats rule the menu. Want butcher-shop goods and family meals? He's got that too. Merging several of his current restaurants also (Ariete, Nave, Chug's, and Taurus Beer & Whiskey House), Chef Michael Beltran created a one-stop-shop featuring some of his popular dishes and a weekly cantina option (Latin-style food catering service).

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While curbside pickup and delivery aren't the most desirable of models to keep businesses like theirs afloat, momentum has increased, and the demand is high. It's clear that diners still want the restaurant experience, despite the limitations. Through the weeks, the menus at these and other local spots have evolved from dishes they already had to new item specials only available on specific days — sometimes even selling out days before. Just ask the crew at Viet-Cajun Phuc Yea about their famous biscuits and St. Louis Style Rib Thursday dinners. Or perhaps, Cuban French bistro, La Fresa Francesa's Friday date night specials (including their guava crêpes). Innovating on command is never easy, but the creative juices are on over-drive city-wide.

Many restaurants, like Kilgore's and Beltran's, offer wine and spirits at discounted prices. As a bonus, diners can also take home jugs of premixed (and sealed) cocktails to keep those endless hours happy. Perhaps this is one trend that will remain once this crisis vanishes. But why stop there? Residents have the option to shop at these restaurants for supplies too; countless of them have added merchandise for sale ranging from spices to local produce to toilet paper. Yes, toilet paper. Even pastelitos, fritas, and locally-made ice cream can be delivered in the city where the heat is on. How is that for quarantine heaven?

Miami continues to turn the beat around, while laws regarding a return to dining-in remain unclear and change daily. GoFundMe campaigns of all types keep popping up, and various restaurants now offer heavily discounted prices (or even complimentary meals) for those in the industry. We are all in this together. This means we must all do our part in supporting this fight to help these establishments come out on top: donate, order out, spread the word. As a longtime avid diner, I am forever changed and inspired by the hustle and bustle of our exceptional South Florida culinary community. Now, about those to-go cocktails...

Continue reading the latest on COVID-19 and the food and beverage industry:
Culinary Chronicles: Finding Comfort in Food During Turbulent Times
Foodservice Adaptations in the Age of COVID-19
Social Distancing Cuisine With Pantry Made Soup Recipes
COVID-19's Impact on Alcoholic Beverage Categories
Consumers 'Quarantine and Cook' With Social Media Inspiration
COVID-19: Center of the Store Report

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