I first read a story about Covid-19 in January and made a casual observation to my wife, something along the lines of "Hmmm, this thing seems serious."
In February a friend and I were embarking on a four-restaurant food crawl and talking about the fate of Asian-American-operated restaurants across Houston. Sales were down dramatically as people avoided these restaurants, primarily because of unfounded and false rumors that the coronavirus was spreading through those establishments.
In early March it seemed inevitable that everything was about to change. By mid-month, all restaurants and bars across Harris County were ordered to close for dine-in service. In the following weeks, operators scrambled to figure out how to work a new reality. I heard the word "pivot" more times than I could count. I stopped writing restaurant reviews and, instead, focused on pantry items and kitchen equipment. Next came all those takeout meals. Dine-in started again and ramped up quickly, then was scaled back before being ramped up yet again despite an increasing number of coronavirus cases and deaths. We were frustrated, angry, worried, sad, confused, and uncertain with how the hell to live, but mostly hoping that we could all get through this damn thing.
Covid-19 impacted everything in food. It's not only the story of 2020 but also of our past and future. Did we do it right before? How will we do it after?
Let's start with before: Hospitality workers are among the most under-appreciated and overworked people in the world. They work ridiculous hours in highly stressful, cramped, and hot environments. Many don't have health care because their employers won't pay for it. For some workers, pay is dependent on the number of customers, so when something like a pandemic happens, they not only won't get enough money, but also they're probably going to be furloughed or laid off completely.
The system is set up for a majority of hospitality workers to struggle, and there are few ways those folks can even get a helping hand when things go wrong. Luckily, Houston is home to one of those ways in the Southern Smoke Foundation, which, since March 2020, has helped lead the charge by giving $4.2 million in emergency funds to workers across the country. The organization, started by chef Chris Shepherd, wife Lindsey Brown (FYI they got married last weekend), and Kathryn Lott, also launched a $4-million fund in Chicago, started a mental health partnership in Houston, and was the recipient of a $1-million TV-game-show donation (thanks David Chang). Southern Smoke was one of the great things about 2020.
But that's not all. Hospitality PR guru Jonathan Beitler and sommelier Cat Nguyen created Houston Shift Meal during the pandemic. This organization handed out restaurant-made meals to hospitality workers. In 12 weeks, HSM distributed $102,911 back into the restaurant and bar economy and sent out more than 20,000 meals.
Plus, plenty of restaurant workers opted to feed others in the community for free, even in the face of their own business's struggle. Look to places like Riel, which launched a relief program; MAD, which handed out meals to workers; and Mastrantos, which worked closely with Chef Jose Andres's World Central Kitchen and by mid-June had delivered about 3,000 meals to seniors during the pandemic.
Efforts like Southern Smoke and HSM, and the work of restaurants across Houston, were necessary in 2020, but that's a consequence of a system that sets so many up to struggle.
Because Covid-19 kept restaurants and bars closed and/or at low capacity for such a long time, a substantial number of local establishments closed permanently. Some of these places were still in their first or second year.
Those we lost include Blackbird Izakaya in the Heights, all locations of Bernie's Burger Bus, Indika, Dolce Vita Pizzeria & Enoteca, hot Greenway Coffee concept Tropicales, Sawyer Yards anchor Poitin, Yia Yia Mary's—along with four other Pappas restaurants—and Penny Quarter, the all-day Montrose cafe that earned high marks from me early in the year.
Maybe the saddest closing was in the Heights, where Alice's Tall Texan bid adieu after more than 30 years of serving up frosty beers and good times.
And, of course, we're waiting to see if celebrated Houston-based chain cafeteria Luby's fades from existence.
While many places closed, some places pivoted, serving and presenting in new ways while embracing the constant changes of life in a pandemic.
Early on, Good Dog became a market and thrived in the Heights (it ended its lease in Montrose later in the year). Local Foods also went the market route, a move that resulted in the wildest makeover of a restaurant empire in recent memory, where Benjy Levit closed The Classic, announced the end of his namesake restaurant, and looked to a future where Local Foods dominates casual Texas cuisine.
Other restaurants in town went the heat-and-eat route, teaming up with supermarkets to get their product into more home kitchens. A few got their food into breweries and bars. Tastings and chef demonstrations over Zoom? That happened, too.
Some restaurants embraced the outdoors more than ever. Everyone tried to figure out delivery and takeout. Farmers markets got bigger and more important as people realized the benefits of local food in an open-air environment. Big-name chefs like Jonny Rhodes and Dawn Burrell opted to think more critically about the future of food.
All the while, pop-up culture seemed to come back strong in 2020, with everything from pizza to hyped-up Japanese sandwiches. And ghost kitchen food halls, with both established and new concepts, made a bid this year as well, although one Houston operation was already ahead of the curve.
Despite all of the hardships, a few new restaurants made their mark in Houston this year.
Bludorn is the kind of restaurant that the James Beard Foundation might look at carefully in the future (although the future of that award ceremony is very much in question). Turner's filled a gap as the city's new big-money, ultimate-date-night spot. Musaafer in the Galleria IV Wing is maybe the most gorgeous new spot in some time, and its food is quite appealing. Plus, Belly of the Beast turned heads, and late entry Tiny Champions has already caused a happy uproar.
Houston lost its most celebrated host in Tony Vallone, who died September 10 at age 75. It also lost one of the food scene's fiercest advocates in journalist and personality Cleverley Stone, who died May 28 at age 68. Houston Restaurant Weeks, which Stone created in 2003, continued in 2020 and expanded into a two-month celebration under her daughter Katie Stone's leadership.
Also, Sigmund Jucker, one of the original founders of Three Brothers Bakery, died December 11 at age 98, and Vincent Mandola, who owned Grappino di Nino, Nino's, and Vincent's in the Hyde Park area, died July 19 at age 77.
Because of all the struggle, hardship, confusion, frustration, and sadness, 2020 was also a year that we relied on comfort food. Last year may have been about pizza, but I felt this was the year fried chicken took over. But your favorite comfort food may vary, which is why I wrote about it a lot this year.
This was a hard year for so many, especially in the hospitality industry, where furloughs and layoffs were standard, dreams were dashed, and hope seemed to be in short supply. On top of that, imagine having to deal with someone coming into your restaurant who didn't want to wear a mask. For anxiety alone, this wasn't the year.
That made the foods we ate all the more crucial. Whether we enjoyed Szechuan or pop-up ice cream, what came to our tables in 2020 helped get us through this ever-changing existence. I'm hoping we can share more of these meals together in 2021, as long as the circumstances allow; until then, we keep pushing.