Courtesy photo

Glasses clink, candles flicker, and the cool ocean breeze sweeps by carrying hints of fresh rosemary and garlic. This is not the scene of a pre-COVID fantasy, but the serene new courtyard Chef Andrea Inio transported his restaurant to a mere three days after learning his recently reopened dining room must close indefinitely.

Across Santa Monica, restaurants are finding imaginative new ways to adapt their practices in an effort to keep their employees healthy and hired and customers safe and satiated.

“We’ve been swimming in this ocean, and now we’ve found a raft so we’re still safe,” Inio said in reference to the courtyard space Orto has taken over, which can seat 60 people in line with distancing requirements. Demand is slowly inching up to pre-pandemic levels and the staff is successfully mastering the new safety measures and further distance food must be transported from kitchen to outdoor table.

Dave Beran, owner of gourmet French restaurant Pasjoli and fine-dining restaurant Dialogue, has also come up with several business models adapted to fit people’s new preferences and the current dining restrictions. Dialogue has experimented with three- and seven-dish at-home meals, while Pasjoli has shifted to provide more rustic French dishes that are easier to transport and heat at home.

Beran’s latest venture, Tidbits by Dialogue, is an outdoor wine bar with a menu of ten small dishes slated to open Aug. 6.

“Creative people need creative things to do, so we are trying to push our creativity with Tidbits,” Beran said, describing how Dialogue’s previous model of 20-course tasting meals that lasted up to three hours is no longer suitable for to-go or outdoor service.

Tidbits will retain some of the best parts of Dialogue like its seasonal dishes supplied by the farmers market and the beloved Basque cheesecake, according to Beran. However, it will be located on the second-floor patio of the Gallery Food Hall with a pared-down menu and a more approachable price point.

The restaurant business is no cakewalk. Around 60 percent of restaurants fail in their first year and almost 80 percent don’t make it to their fifth anniversary, according to a study done by the Ohio State University. But Santa Monica’s restaurateurs are rising to the challenge even in these uncertain times.

“We are working our tails off to make sure we show responsibility, exercise the safest practices, work with the health department, read all the updates, and make sure that our staff feels good,” said Raphael Lunetta. Due to the pandemic, business has plummeted by 80 percent at his restaurant Lunetta, which had previously experienced months of “rocking record-breaking sales”.

Still, Lunetta and his team are finding ways to pivot by utilizing not one or two, but three patios to provide outdoor dining options as well as expanded take-out services. Additionally, through the government’s Payroll Protection Program, which provides loans for small businesses, Lunetta has been able to retain all members of his core team.

Mark Wain, a founder and owner of Caffe Luxxe coffee shops, is looking into acquiring a parklet for his Santa Monica location. Parklets, several of which are already in use on Main Street, allow businesses to convert parking spaces into outdoor dining areas.

“Our business is predicated on social gathering,” said Wain. “It’s about taking ten minutes away from our day to sit down and enjoy a nice handcrafted cup of coffee in a comfortable environment.”

While his Santa Monica store previously only had indoor space, a parklet will soon allow customers to recreate that communal experience in a safe manner.

All four business owners lamented the government’s inconsistent messaging on coronavirus best practices. On March 15th restaurants became takeout only, on May 29th they were allowed to resume dine-in services, and then on July 1st they were ordered to reclose all indoor dining.

Despite the confusion, Santa Monica’s restaurateurs are navigating the shifting challenges of coronavirus with flexibility and creativity to find silver linings in the process.

Beran has developed to-go business models for restaurants he previously believed were suited for dine-in only, and Inio has created a magical new outdoor setting in which diners can enjoy his delectable penne alla vodka. Wain said he takes pride knowing that the reopening of patios at select Caffe Luxxe locations has soothed people after weeks of isolation.

“I think COVID has actually brought people closer together, understanding that less is more, that maybe menus don’t need to be as big as they were,” Lunetta said, “and maybe we need to be more thoughtful of how much we purchase and how much we waste.”

Clara@smdp.com