An occasional look at my communication with readers.

An occasional look at my communication with readers.

The pandemic has magnified the creativity of restaurants, which have deployed mannequins (Rumi’s Kitchen), miniature “lodges” (Bresca), seats in parking lots (Clarity) and more to keep customers comfortable, socially distanced, even entertained.

Diners have reacted to the crisis with some clever notions, too. In a recent online discussion, one reader shared how her family was ordering takeout alphabetically by country — Afghan, Balkan, Colombian, Dominican, etc. — as much to expand their horizons as to support local restaurants. Then there’s Grant Vaught, who used his birthday in April to rethink his takeout routine. “I went to a few great places, and got a little bit from each” to create a custom-tailored tasting menu, the Washingtonian emails. Vaught gathered an amuse-bouche and pasta from the Red Hen, a raw fish course from Sushi Taro, ceviche from Seven Reasons, entrees of fish (for his wife) and steak (for himself) from Gravitas, where they also got dessert, plus a palate cleanser from the late Emilie’s. The couple sprang for a similar progressive meal when Vaught’s wife celebrated a special occasion in October.

Vaught goes into the night prepared. “We have a couple insulated bags and ice packs … to help us out in keeping hot things hot and cold things cold.” Vaught says he hasn’t had a problem ordering a single dish from a place, and “since most places allow you to schedule times now, it makes it pretty easy to set up. If you were having them delivered, that might be a different story.” He retrieves the dishes from the farthest place out, then coming back toward home, “with an appropriate time scheduled between each.”

The best part, he writes: “a tasting menu in 45 minutes!”

Hot strategies for cold-weather dining

After I wrote about how to embrace cold-weather dining, based on interviews with chill-seekers including Nordic ambassadors and an explorer at the South Pole, a number of readers asked for advice on how to keep food hot amid frigid temperatures. As someone determined to eat outside as long as possible — mostly to continue to break bread with friends and colleagues at a safe distance — I can vouch that warming heavy plates in the oven goes a long way toward a successful alfresco meal, even at 33 degrees, a scenario fact-checked during a recent endurance contest at Chez Tom.

The Washington chef with one of the biggest bags of tricks might be Fabio Trabocchi, who made headlines when he expanded his outdoor seating to include yurts at his flagship Fiola in Penn Quarter and also installed plastic igloos at Fiola Mare in Georgetown and Del Mar at the Wharf. Most years, says Trabocchi, “the beginning of the cold is the end of the outdoor season.”

But 2020 is no typical year, and to maintain the finesse for which his upscale restaurants are known, he’s relied on enhanced communication between the kitchen and the front of the house staff, outfitted with earphones and mouthpieces. Speed — getting food to the table quickly — has never mattered more. In addition, heated steel covers help keep hot dishes hot on their journey from kitchen to yurt or igloo, as do electric warmers atop delivery trays. Staff remains at the mercy of the elements, however. When it rained recently, additional workers were quickly recruited to carry umbrellas over the servers bearing trays of food to guests tucked into the vented outdoor structures.

In search of plates with plants

Menus have become ever-briefer in the pandemic, resulting in fewer choices, especially for special interest groups. Hence the request from Tina Ciccariello for suggestions for restaurants with vegan options. “It seems most establishments have pork belly, steak or chicken,” she writes. “What if readers want to keep from supporting how animals are raised, caged, caught and mass-produced for food?” she asks.

Restaurants would be wise to highlight a creative meatless option or two on their menus, not just for vegetarians and vegans, but for those of us who want to cut back on our meat consumption. Earlier this year, I devoted a column to places that treated vegetarians like first-class citizens, a collection of kitchens including Amber Spice Indian Cuisine in Laurel, Md.; Aracosia for Afghan in McLean, Va.; and the fast-casual Shouk in the District. Since, I’ve been delighted by the takeout I’ve sampled from the tiny Vegz, where one of many highlights is broccoli tossed with grated coconut; Fancy Radish, which offers such winter warmers as rutabaga fondue and spicy dan dan noodles with mushrooms; and Chaia, home to sweet potato nachos and tacos stuffed with creamy kale and potato. The last is vegetarian, but almost anything there can be made vegan. Better still, promises Chaia’s menu, “all of our products are 100% nut-free and gluten-free (except for the beer!)”

Restaurants that let you kid around (or not)

“Is there anything wrong with an adult who wants to eat less buying a kids meal?” asks Rosemary N. Palmer via email. The Tallahassee reader suggests there are other diners like herself who want to avoid food waste or save money. My initial inclination, partly to support struggling dining establishments, was to suggest she and like-minded customers opt instead for a light appetizer or two.

But then I spoke to several restaurateurs who told me they wouldn’t refuse a grown-up a child’s meal, partly because of the current hard times. “Our motto is to say yes as much as we can,” says Jeremy Mancuso, general manager of Old Ebbitt Grill, a Washington institution and one of the country’s most popular restaurants. “We’re in the hospitality business,” echoes Stefan Trummer, who co-owns Trummer’s in Clifton, Va., with his wife, Victoria. Customers’ motivations aren’t necessarily based on frugality, says Trummer. A diner recovering from say, surgery or an illness might simply crave a cheeseburger, which only appears on the kids menu at his restaurant, he says. “It’s not like a slider,” but rather, a six-ounce beef patty offered with hand-cut french fries and a house-baked pretzel bun for $12 — about the price of an appetizer at Trummer’s.

A representative for Ted’s Bulletin, which has six locations in the Washington area, says its kids meals are priced low, at $5.99, to make it easier for families to eat out. “When ordered to-go, it barely covers the cost of food, packaging, etc.,” texts Nick Salis, senior vice president for Salis Holdings, which includes Ted’s Bulletin. “We expect the neighborhood to appreciate this and not take advantage of it.”

At Old Ebbitt Grill, the dish adults most frequently request from the kids list is — shocker — chicken tenders, four ounces for $7.99. Mancuso says a doubled version is available for grown-up appetites for $17.99, “just not on the menu.”

The regular Dining column returns next week.

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