When thinking through the state of affairs that is the St. Louis restaurant scene in 2021, how you feel about things, more than ever, depends upon which side of the table you sit. If you’re a diner, post-vaccine rollout 2021 has been a glorious return to some semblance of normalcy. Gone are the days of shuttered doors, curbside-only and sanitizing your takeout containers, replaced with open dining rooms, full-service experiences and actual flatware. Sitting inside the four walls of an eatery, sipping a craft cocktail and listening to the day’s specials feels so familiar, it’s tempting to see the pandemic through the rearview mirror and not as an ongoing event.
But it’s very much ongoing for those in the business. If this year has seemed like a return to normal for the dining public, it has been nothing short of a sea change for the industry, with the concept of normal being blown to bits by everything from staffing shortages to soaring food costs to the continuing financial stress that comes from enhanced safety protocols as well as a year and a half of slashed revenues due to shuttered dining rooms and reduced capacities. If the pandemic did anything to the industry, it exposed its flaws and vulnerabilities, with restaurants being forced to reckon with these things in ways that the dining public will soon be unable to ignore.
We’re witnessing a seismic shift in the industry that has been a long time coming. Going out to eat is just going to cost more. There is no way around it. Restaurants have to pay higher wages and provide benefits to their employees, and they have to be protective of workers’ quality of life. However, this money does not come out of thin air. The dining public will have to recognize that, if they want to continue to have the privilege of going out to eat, they will be paying prices that accurately reflect what goes into that. It’s just that simple.
These are fraught times for the industry, which is why we take the time to celebrate the following chefs, restaurateurs and industry professionals who refuse to be deterred from sharing their craft. Despite the daily challenges they face, they still get up every morning, turn on the ovens and polish the glassware to welcome us into their homes away from home. That they continue to do this, no matter how tough things get, is the truest form of hospitality. —Cheryl Baehr