Update: Il Nido is open for reservations. As of now, each day's reservation book opens at midnight 30 days in advance, so this hack still applies.
After nearly five months of running Il Nido as a neighborhood market, Mike Easton is plotting its return to an actual, tables-and-waitstaff restaurant. His plan: Pretty much the opposite of any current conventional wisdom on how a restaurant can survive.
Rather than embracing burgers, takeout, or other staples of uber-casual pandemic cuisine, “We’re doubling down on fine dining,” says Easton. He and general manager Cameron Williams have devised a raft of safety measures, and aim to implement them “as elegantly as humanly possible,” says the chef.
A prix fixe restaurant from a chef who once refused to even consider serving food after lunchtime seems fitting in this era of upside down. But Il Nido, the house of intricate pasta Easton opened last summer in the landmark Alki Homestead log cabin, can’t really do its thing with a skeleton crew. By his calculus: The same number of staff but half as many customers (due to social distancing measures) means costs have to go up. And if they’re going up, he wants to give customers an experience worth their money.
The protocols that will be in place when Il Nido reopens September 22 are a fascinating blueprint in a moment when every restaurant is asking itself: What the everloving hell happens when fall rain sets in and patios become less viable? Customers who make a reservation at Il Nido (uh, more on that in a second) will text the restaurant upon arrival, and hang out in the car or on the sidewalk until they receive an official summons to approach the host station set up on the large front porch. Temperature checks happen here, at a self-check station Easton swears actually looks somewhat elegant. Then, the now-familiar Covid symptom quiz. After making the commitment to safety abundantly clear, says Easton, customers step inside “and leave all that shit behind.”
He and Williams have gone granular on details. The front-of-house staff—most of them eager returns from Before Times—will wear black masks and rubber gloves; customers will use defined entrances and exits. Easton hung curtains between tables and removed chairs from the banquette to enforce physical space. In this world, couples who sit side-by-side at a two-top aren't Those People; they're champions of public safety.
Rather than slip over unobtrusively to clear plates, the old paradigm for adept service, bussers will stand a few feet back and inquire whether diners might pass dishes their way—“It’s about communicating with tables to gauge comfort level,” says Easton. Indoor dining is still a nonstarter for many, but I've talked to plenty of other people who have concerns about safety, or about a meal feeling like a pleasurable escape amidst all those necessary safety precautions. With both restaurants and customers looking for a new way forward come fall, Il Nido's process will be pretty interesting to watch.
In May, Easton announced the permanent closure of Il Corvo, his pasta counter in Pioneer Square that built a following usually reserved for professional sports leagues or Beyonce. His wife and business partner, Victoria, passed away this spring unexpectedly (and with no relation to coronavirus). After a summer immersed in both the outdoors and in giving his teenage daughter some happier memories, Easton says he’s mentally ready to build a new version of his restaurant, one that can outlast Covid.
Dinner at this new iteration of Il Nido will be a multi-course prix fixe situation, something that starts around $95 but could include copious add-ons, or cocktail or wine or N/A drink pairings. Easton won't open the virtual reservation books until he's done a few test runs to ensure things work as they should, so keep an eye on Il Nido's social media to figure out when bookings go live. Then act fast. Getting a table in this handsome dining room was comically impossible before; now it will have roughly half the number of seats. And—in yet another swerve—the restaurant won’t seat diners on its patio; mandatory reservations and the unreliable nature of Pacific Northwest rain made that a nonstarter, says Easton.
He is, however, installing an outdoor pizza oven behind the kitchen, an insurance policy of sorts in case restaurants must shutter again. If they do, he says, “we’ll have the most awesome parking lot pizza pickup program you could ever imagine.”