The concept of the combo meal is one of the oldest tricks in the chain-restaurant promotional playbook. Quick-service chains in particular have deployed the familiar sandwich-fries-soft-drink trio with frequency over the past decades as a reliable means to boost traffic, if not loyalty. The coronavirus pandemic has driven independent chefs and small local chains to adopt the tactic as a means to keeping their kitchens open, even as their dining rooms are closed; and in order to maintain a vibrant customer connection, they are cooking up some creative combinations of their own.
Many restaurateurs are offering respite for cooped-up couples and frustrated families in the form of complete, ready-to-eat multicourse meals. They come with all the trimmings, lacking only the tableside flourish and professional service. In Arlington, Va., Ambar Clarendon specializes in Balkan cuisine and delivers its specialties to shut-ins with a six-course menu that feeds three to four people. It starts with soup or salad and a spread, goes on to an entrée and vegetable and ends appropriately with dessert. Starter choices include soothing chicken soup with root vegetables, Balkan salad with aged cheese and tzatziki or garlic bean spreads. There are hearty mains like beef short rib goulash or stuffed cabbage, and dessert is Baklava. All orders come with house-made pita or cornbread, and a second meal package comprises the same menu sized up to feed six to eight people.
At protein-centric Frontier in Chicago, meat lovers can pig out on a special Sunday Funday Wagyu Beef Rib Dinner. Along with smoked ribs, they receive mac & cheese, Caesar salad and croissant doughnuts; and the “funday” quotient is pumped up with a complimentary deck of playing cards. Even more fun, early orders are rewarded with 32-ounces of whisky punch.
Culinary Dropout, which creates cocktail classics at its five locations in Arizona, puts together a special Family Pack Dinner that combines comfort-food classics like fried chicken, meat loaf, coleslaw, mac & cheese and mashed potatoes and gravy. To sweeten the deal, beer and wine to go are on offer at 50% off the regular price.
Beer and wine may throw a lifeline to some beleaguered operators, as numerous states and municipalities temporarily allow them to sell alcoholic beverages for off-premise consumption. After the governor of Tennessee signed a short-term waiver of state liquor laws, restaurateurs rushed in to take advantage. At popular Folk in East Nashville, for example, diners make their own menu from a list of the restaurant’s greatest hits, including a Spiralized Kohlrabi Caesar, Pizza Special with asparagus, bottarga and pesto, and the nifty Oatmeal Cookie Gelato. As accompaniment, the wine-beer-cocktail list includes a $35 Mystery Bottle: “You choose a category, we surprise you.”
Diners in Louisville, Ky., apparently like mysteries, too. At 610 Magnolia, the new Dinner Pickup program features attractive meal choices like New York strip with fingerling potatoes, gochujang butter and asparagus Henry Bain, a spicy-sweet local condiment. To wash it down, diners can choose from a “grab bag” of wine selections identified only as red or white and priced attractively at $15, $30 or $60 each, a clever means to surprise, delight and deliver value.
Speaking of delight and value, Peached Social House, a popular spot in Austin, Texas, offers several family-meal bundles with elements like coconut curry & roasted chicken, shredded pork enchilada casserole and brisket mushroom stroganoff. There are vegan and vegetarian versions as well, and all meals come with two bottles of GT’s Pink Lady Apple Kombucha and two scoops of NadaMoo vegan ice cream. Those seeking something stronger can add two Spicy Margaritas de Peached for a modest $10.
Even, or perhaps especially, the most lauded fine-dining establishments in the country are feeling the pain of shutdown. But Eater San Francisco reports that 16 Michelin-starred Bay Area operations are offering takeout and delivery. This includes sizzling hot, three-starred Atelier Crenn, which is packing up Crenn Kits comprising brioche, soup, vegetable gratiné and dessert for $38 per person.
Fine-dining restaurants Canlis in Seattle and Alinea in Chicago are among others that have flipped their menus to offer comfort food for carryout. For many foodies, this provides an affordable opportunity to sample a restaurant that might otherwise be beyond their financial reach, and for the restaurant, it demonstrates that necessity can be the mother of culinary invention.
Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta. As one of LinkedIn’s Top 100 Influencers in the U.S., she blogs regularly on food-related subjects at linkedin.com.