2020 has been a challenging year and, as if restaurants didn’t need another challenge, there is one coming up — New Year’s Eve.
Typically, one of the busiest days of the year, this New Year’s looks to be beset with reduced capacity from COVID and limited utility of outdoor seating from the cold.
One way to mitigate these factors is to rely heavily on what has been a lifeline for many restaurants — delivery and to-go orders. For New Year’s, though, giving that order an upscale party twist might be what people are looking for to celebrate the final holiday of this unusual year, and taking a page out of your normal game plan might be a source of inspiration. Many places already go prix fixe for the night with multiple courses, paired drinks, and party favors and that’s a great foundation from which to build your party box.
The key here, to maximize volume, is to focus on prix fixe all-inclusive boxes, perhaps with a few options and add-ons, that customers can pick up or have delivered the day of, combining both the elegance of the night and easy use.
On super busy nights, it’s an age-old technique to start dinners with cold dishes that can be prepared and plated in advance to avoid bogging the kitchen down, and there’s little reason to change that tactic now.
Shrimp or lump crab cocktails are a great choice, but a chilled butter poached lobster tail drizzled with a mustard caviar mousse is the perfect way to elevate a menu. Salads, like Caesar for example, could also be dressed up with a little chilled shellfish, or you could do a twist on a wedge salad with creamy dill dressing topped off with tender bay shrimp.
As a vegetarian option, consider a beautiful slice of a vegetable terrine, and for those with a shellfish allergy or aversion, there’s always beef tartare — a classic dish that has regained popularity and is amazingly versatile with everything from jalapeños to truffle.
If something warmer is called for, soups are easy to reheat and can be easily dressed up with garnishes like lump crab or a little infused oil for drizzling on top.
The last thing most diners will want to do is engage in a lot of steps to prepare their New Year’s dinner, so constructing something that is both worthy of the night and simple to prepare is the goal.
One simple method, for seafood at least, is en papilotte — French for “cooked in parchment.” A seasoned fillet of most any firm fish with aromatics like dill or fennel, perhaps a little citrus to balance the dish or a splash of white wine or sherry, sealed in parchment paper can simply be tossed in the oven with no muss or fuss required by the diner.
For something a little meatier, consider beef Wellington. Seared and pre-constructed, this is another great dish for someone craving a steak with minimal effort. Customize the steak with a mushroom duxelles or by wrapping the steak in prosciutto. For vegetarians, Wellington can be made with plant-based meat or simply a wild mushroom pȃté.
Sides can closely mimic the style and feel of your cuisine and are great ways to maintain your culinary narrative even when many of the dishes aren’t standard offerings. Whether reheated in the oven with the mains or popped into the microwave, don’t forget to experiment with the re-heating process to ensure cheese and sauces don’t break down or emerge with the wrong texture.
Similarly, your house desserts should easily suffice to round out the party box, just bear in mind how they travel and which ones will be the most visually and palate-pleasing when it’s time to serve them at home. Old standbys like a crѐme brûlée might not work, but a molten chocolate cake after a few seconds in the microwave might wow them.
Sure, not every box order is going to include alcohol, but it’s New Year’s and even casual drinkers are likely going to want something. Offer pairings — an apéritif cocktail like a Negroni kit — to start things off with an appropriate wine for dinner and, of course, Champagne to round things out. Drive up check average with optional premium upgrades like an after-dinner drink or a higher-tier Champagne. Don’t forget to create drink pairings for teetotalers with mocktails and non-alcoholic sparklers.
New Year’s will take some organization — delivery-size boxes and bags for all the courses and drinks, utensils and Champagne flutes if needed, and don’t forget the shwaggy party favors: hats, noisemakers, crackers, table decorations, even a sparkler or two.
Designating time slots for pick up or neighborhood hub deliveries can help with time management and avoid huge rushes where social distancing can be difficult.
At the end of the day (or year), it’s likely you’ll be operating at a reduced capacity even if you’ve got an elaborate outdoor dining program functioning as best as possible. The upside is diners have become more and more comfortable with take-home meals during COVID. Sell enough of these party boxes featuring well-curated components and getting in range of last year’s sales numbers might not be such a stretch after all.