For the past couple of years, fast-casual has been the name of the game in the restaurant business. As operators sought to improve the industry’s notoriously slim margins and appeal to customers looking for quick dining options, fast-casual restaurants were booming across the country.
But in Houston, restaurants devoted to the pricey, time-consuming tasting menus are making a comeback. There’s Hidden Omakase, the ultra-exclusive sushi restaurant that is currently booked weeks out, and March, the brand new restaurant from chef Felipe Riccio that’s serving thoughtful Mediterranean tasting menus. And back in January, chef Brandon Silva debuted Degust, where he’s serving tasting menus that explore Spanish and Mexican cuisine.
Even more tasting menu destinations are in the works, too. In the coming months, former Uchi cook Thomas Stacy will open ReikiNa, a Japanese tasting menu restaurant, at CityCentre. The restaurant will serve eight-course meals that will change every two months or so, with only 20 seats per service. According to a press release, the idea for ReikiNa was born out of COVID-19 necessity when Stacy prepared private dinners at home for friends who weren’t ready to visit restaurants last summer.
ReikiNa will eschew a dress code and other exclusionary trappings of the traditional tasting menu restaurant. “We want to take away the pretentiousness of a tasting menu and flip that perspective on its head,” Stacy says in a statement. “We want this to be a fun experience for everyone.”
But why now? After a year of eating food out of takeout containers and our own kitchens, few things sound more appealing than a decadent meal that’s been labored over by a chef for hours. Those of us who have stayed out of restaurants in an effort to safely navigate the pandemic are undoubtedly pining for a dining experience where it’s possible to receive — and feel comfortable receiving — top-notch service from bartenders and waiters.
Nothing about the past year has felt particularly luxurious, and there are plenty of people who are looking to splurge. As the economy recovers from the shitshow that was 2020 and more and more people return to work, there’s more disposable income than before to blow on top-quality sushi and foie gras. At least for some, anyway.
It’s also possible that, now, people are more interested in intimate dining experiences than packing into huge, crowded restaurants full of people that could potentially carry COVID-19. Smaller establishments have a much easier time with scene control — it’s much easier to get 20 people to comply with safe dining protocols than 200, of course — especially when they’re only accepting reservations.
These new tasting menu restaurants feel especially suited to the post-pandemic moment. Despite often being small, restaurants like Hidden Omakase have still implemented social distancing measures in their dining rooms. Temperature checks are commonplace, and Silva installed electrostatic HEPA filters inside Degust’s dining room to improve air circulation inside the space. At March, diners are expected to sign a waiver, in advance or upon arrival, attesting that they are not experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms and promising to wear a mask at all times while moving throughout the restaurant.
Economically, these restaurants run the gamut. Dinner for two at Degust will set diners back $150, but that’s before gratuity and pricey upgrades like Osetra caviar and bluefin tuna. The nine-course tasting at March clocks in at $195 per person, with wine pairings ranging from $85 to $175. Among the most budget-friendly options is Littlefoot, the fun pop-up at Theodore Rex from chef Kaitlin Steets. Priced at $65, Littlefoot boasts two distinct tasting menus — a vegetarian option and one for omnivores — with composed plates like quail roasted with fennel pollen and green Chartreuse and lion’s mane mushrooms with cauliflower and pickled chestnut mushrooms.
It’s hard to say exactly how this influx of tasting rooms will influence Houston’s dining scene. It’s possible that these restaurants could raise the city’s profile, drawing an even closer eye from James Beard award voters and maybe, one day, the notoriously nit-picky reviewers at globally renowned restaurant guide Michelin. It’s also possible that they’re just a flash in the pan, a trend that’s waiting to be felled by the fickle tastes of Houston diners and global economic uncertainty.