All I keep saying is that this New Year’s Eve is gonna be epic. There will be a special passion in the air to kick this nasty year to the curb.
And the restaurant business will be providing the first foot, so to speak, as the pandemic has done more damage to the core of that business than anything I’ve seen in my lifetime. Yet, innovation has helped the strong survive, with more takeout, food delivery, outdoor dining options and other clever survival enhancers.
When this ends, and it will, the pent-up demand might kick the business to new heights. At least that’s what the optimists hope.
The grim news from Nation’s Restaurant News is that local restaurants are the hardest hit by this recession. Companies like Beyond Meat and McDonald’s, they reported, are doing great, but many nonchains are closing their doors.
Nationwide employment in the food and nightclub industry was 2 million jobs below where it was last February according to the October jobs report. In New York City, the full-service restaurant industry is employing half the people it did before the virus hit, according to the Nation’s Restaurant News.
We saw pretty much everything that happened nationally happening here in Bakersfield beginning with those shutdowns in March, continuing through a summer in fits and starts, a reopening in fall and then yet another indoor dining shutdown and more uncertainty going forward as another wave of the COVID-19 seems to gather momentum.
In late November when Kern County went back to the restrictive purple tier, many restaurants doubled down on the outdoor tent dining experience, expanding it, sensing that this could extend through the bulk of 2021.
Delivery and takeout amped up, too. That old Chinese proverb “May you live in interesting times” has certainly taken hold, and I, for one, would like a nice stretch of dull normality.
With the vaccine rollout underway and hope for better days ahead, I'm taking a condensed look back at the year in dining.
Hats off, though, to places like KC Steakhouse, Wool Growers, Frugatti’s, Camino Real and other restaurants that really made outdoor dining work during these challenging times.
BEST NEW RESTAURANTS OF 2020
Smitten (in Grand Island Village, 1407 Buena Vista Road): This along with Frugatti’s is probably the restaurant that has coped best with these challenging times. I’ve been there many times since they opened late last year; they have a marvelous outdoor dining space in the parking lot that fills up on the weekend mornings and though we haven’t been back for dinner lately I have no doubt the quality has not suffered in the least. The Smitten burger and grilled chicken Gouda sandwich with the turmeric garlic aioli are particularly tasty as well as the orzo with roasted vegetables, a vegan option. And be sure to get any of the Pie Hole pies they bring up from the Southland.
Social House Kitchen & Bar (9440 Hageman Road): The new business in the old RJ’s opened by Amanda Mercado and her parents, Chris and Annette, shows some real thoughtful touches on both the drink and food menu, with an amazing pork chop with sourdough stuffing, a rib-eye steak on the dinner menu with a Mexican spice rub and chipotle-lime butter and roasted peppers and, finally, sautéed shrimp with a spicy pesto sauce, The staff worked hard to make this more than a variation on RJ’s, and I think that’s why the crowds have been packing the place.
BottleShock Wine + Brew (1002 19th St.): This business is the creation of Theresa and Shelby Gerber, a mother-daughter team who have lived in Bakersfield, Oregon and Austin, Texas, and wanted to create a vibrant outdoor space for their venture similar to the businesses they enjoyed in the Lone Star state. The menu is not extensive, but the space outdoors is so relaxing and cool that it’s another superb addition to downtown Bakersfield.
Krush Bar and Restaurant (3900 Coffee Road): Even if you weren’t impressed by their original location in the heart of Rosedale, you’ve got to check out this new version that has both a “patio menu” and “elevated pub grub” with appetizers, salads, specialty platters, entrees and even three desserts. The quality was so impressive that I immediately started thinking about when we could come back. It’s the perfect place to go when you want to just sit and chat with friends, which we did earlier this year on the outdoor patio area.
Sancho's Tacos (702 18th St.): This Southland chain founded by Donnie Lancaster in 2010 opened in a small space adjacent to the Silver Fox downtown. It is seriously impressive for so many things from churros to tacos made with grilled, marinated flounder and shrimp tacos that you will never forget, as well as carnitas and tri-tip. Get a burrito, full of goodness.
Yard House (10308 Stockdale Highway): When this place opened, we were all still virus-free and seats were almost impossible to get. They put a tent outside, offered a lot of takeout and kept their covered patio busy. Yes, it’s a chain that a friend called a “classier version of BJ’s,” but at all 75 locations the Long Beach-based chain offers at least 100 drafts, a great happy hour and food that doesn’t depend on alcohol-addled tastebuds to satisfy you.
California Fish Grill (5601 California Ave.): We just wrote about this last month, so it should be fresh in your mind. This small chain fills a need in Bakersfield with moderately priced seafood dinners, bowls and tacos, with quality and variety available at a thin-wallet-friendly price. It’s only fair that the restaurant located on the site of the old Mexicali Southwest should be so impressive.
THE DEARLY DEPARTED
The sad thing is this may not be a complete list, as many are in pandemic-induced limbo and may be revived after normality returns. If I’ve missed any, please email me and I’ll include them in a follow-up story. I realize some may be closed only temporarily, such as Hodel’s Country Dining, which has plans to reopen in the spring, possibly with a new format.
Noriega Hotel: This was big news when the owners of the James Beard Award-winning restaurant just couldn’t do it anymore — you need the energy of youth to survive in the restaurant business. Although the business was purchased, it will be relocated to the old Cafe Med location on Stockdale Highway, and you have to wonder if that genuine old-school charm can be duplicated.
Miyosh Marketplace Japanese: This restaurant at The Marketplace closed early in the year from its location in the food court area near the movie theater that, other than China Bistro and Que Pasa, has seen some turnover over the years. We appreciated the reasonable prices for the quality.
Goose Loonies (both Eastchester location and the new tap room): I was shocked when someone emailed me during the summer to tell me that Jim and Becky Katsantonis, who’d been around Bakersfield with restaurants for decades, had shut everything down and moved to Canada. I was never able to confirm their new geographic location, but when I went to both locations sure enough, they were closed. The Eastchester location has reopened as a sports bar under a new name and New Vintage Grill from the northwest is opening a second location at the Oak Street spot, hoping to lure folks away from the always-crowded 24th Street Cafe. Goose Loonies was probably the most prominent sports bar pioneer in Bakersfield and was originally located on 19th Street right near The Californian’s former offices downtown.
Aqui es Texcoco: It was less than a year for this innovative Mexican restaurant from the Southland that opened its first Bakersfield location offering the lamb barbacoa that the late Jonathan Gold just raved over as well as roasted lamb head, grilled cactus, blood sausage, pressed pork belly, grilled quail marinated in dark beer, and grasshoppers with avocado slices. Apparently too esoteric for our tastes, or maybe just another victim of COVID-19. The place specialized in foods from the Texcoco region of Mexico, where they slow-roast meats in underground fire pits covered with maguey leaves. RIP, Aqui. The building is now home to a new chain: Huckleberry's.
Lie-N Den: This was another Bakersfield institution famous for its open-faced chili cheeseburgers, but you really have to maneuver to get to it on Niles Street and the dining room is small. The location became home to a promising Mexican coffee shop cafe, Casa Flores Restaurant Bar, which we don’t have a surplus of in Bakersfield.
Lucille's Smokehouse Bar-B-Que: Every time I visited this place at the Valley Plaza, it was packed, but the Long Beach-based owners of this small chain closed it this summer due to the impact of COVID-19 on the business. They were pioneers at bringing Nashville chicken to Bakersfield, had a great happy hour and easy takeout.
The Pizza Press: The small fast-casual chain opened its first Bakersfield restaurant in the northwest, but it didn’t last long. The whole quick pizza/cafeteria line concept is pretty competitive right now, and we weren’t impressed with what they offered.
Overall, I’m hoping our vibrant dining scene can recover from this trauma and revitalize once we’re past the hard times.