Many restaurants are closing their doors before dinnertime, making lunch the most important meal of the day.
If breakfast was the power meal of 2016, then 2017 is all about lunch. Turkey and the Wolf, a sandwich shop in New Orleans that closes by 5:00 P.M. every day, was just named America’s best new restaurant by Bon Appétit. The website Eater called 2017 the year of the luncheonette, citing fresh new takes on the retro style of eatery from chefs across the country. And let’s not forget the growing number of chefs who are stepping out of the fine-dining ghetto to embark on fast-casual concepts that do their briskest business during the day.
Though toasts, bowls, and salads—many of the foods that have been breathing new life into lunch—may seem easier to whip up than so-called tweezer cuisine, transitioning from fancy to low-key cooking has its challenges. According to Jessica Koslow, chef-owner of the wildly successful breakfast-and-lunch Los Angeles spot Sqirl and the forthcoming all-day restaurant Tel, “You have to accept modifications, you have to be willing to compromise the vision of a dish for a daytime clientele.” Though that doesn’t come naturally to all chefs, there are some advantages to giving up dinner service. “If you run out of something at a bakery, it’s okay,” says Maura Kilpatrick, chef and co-owner of Sofra, a Middle Eastern–influenced bakery-café in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which closes by 7:00 P.M. daily. “But you can’t 86 everything at a restaurant.”
According to Kilpatrick, the more relaxed attitude of the lunch crowd encourages experimentation. “When we opened, it was a pretty big risk because we were early on the fast-casual and super-fresh Middle Eastern food trends that are really popular now, but not so much 9 years ago.” It helped that she and co-owner/Beard Award–winning chef Ana Sortun had already gained a following for their cooking at the eastern Mediterranean restaurant, Oleana. “I feel like if you have a good product and you have good service, people are receptive right away,” says Kilpatrick. “We did get to piggyback on the recognition from Oleana, and that was helpful to some extent.”
The appeal of a breakfast-and-lunch operation is more than culinary. “I really feel like part of the community,” says Koslow. “We’re a restaurant defining trends on a global scale, but we’re really a restaurant that feeds the neighborhood. One of the most powerful things for me is being an anchor for the community. That’s what you do when you’re a daytime restaurant—you’re neighborly.” Lunch service provides chefs an opportunity to connect with diners that dinner service doesn’t. “Customers are accessible to us,” says Kilpatrick. “We have conversations with them all the time, and we run food out to them. It’s rare that you don’t go out to the café and get stopped for something. I love that part of it.”
In many instances, a focus on lunch is just what makes the most sense for a business. For Amaryll Schwertner, chef-owner of the beloved Boulette’s Larder in San Francisco, the tiny size of her provisions-shop-restaurant coupled with its touristy location in the Ferry Building dictated what kind of operation she would run. “The primary population in the Ferry Building is a daytime population, we have a nice draw and nice clientele,” says Schwertner. “In the evening it’s kind of dark down here, it’s not a real neighborhood. For us, lunch is a nice generative time for the business economy.” Similarly for Koslow, the choice was clear. “Sqirl started from being a jam company and figuring out what would be an honest continuum from jam,” she says. “That would be breakfast and lunch. I also had a very small restaurant space that was the place I was making jam out of. It wasn’t a place you’d think of when you think ‘I’m going to go out to dinner.’”
A renewed focus on lunch has also been influenced by peripheral trends. People, particularly millenials, are dining out more frequently, but special occasion dinners are being replaced by less formal ones, often at fast-casual concepts and in glorified food courts. The emerging popularity of “all-day” restaurants, like Republique in Los Angeles or De Maria in New York City, which morph from breakfast joints to lunch spots to places to grab dinner and a drink, are also evidence of the changing role of the restaurant. One could argue that this trend serves the professional as much as it does the consumer. For many chefs, calling it quits by early evening is a major quality of life upgrade. “People are ready to go home to their kids and hang with their friends at night. You still have time to work out,” says Koslow. And make it home in time for dinner.
Gabriella Gershenson is a freelance writer in New York City. Find her on Twitter.