Why So Many Top Restaurants Are Closing for Dinner
Restaurateurs seeking a better work-life balance are experimenting with serving high-quality fare for breakfast and lunch, then hanging “closed” signs as they head home.
After about 15 years of professional cooking, the Noma alum who had served as sous chef at a series of lauded Southern California hots, was emotionally and physically exhausted. Geiskopf was suffering from stomach issues that needed medical attention and what he calls a quarter-life crisis that drove him to seek therapy.
His therapist suggested that he quit cooking.
“What was I going to do, sell cars, go into real estate?” he asks.
Instead, Geiskopf decided to take control of his life without leaving the industry. He’s still serving visually-stunning modernist-inspired dishes like brown rice porridge with mushroom soy sauce, cultured cream cheese, and crisp lotus root, but he’s doing it in a different way. Triniti closes at 4 p.m., serving only breakfast and lunch in an informal space that looks more like a Blue Bottle cafe than a temple of haute cuisine.
He refers to it as “a fourth-wave coffee shop,” an informal modernist dining like Destroyer, across town in Culver City, which he helped open with chef Jordan Kahn.
If it’s a wave, it’s certainly growing. All across the country restaurateurs seeking a better work-life balance are experimenting with serving high-quality fare for only breakfast and lunch, then hanging “closed” signs as they head home. Is closing for dinner the answer to the problem of chefs not having “normal lives?” Is locking up before sunset a viable business model in a world of high rents and low profit margins?
Ever since Jessica Koslow began slinging ricotta toast from Sqirl in 2012, Los Angeles has seen an influx of innovative daytime-only concepts like Destroyer and Triniti. Last year, Daniel Mattern and Roxana Jullapat debuted their all-day cafe and bakery Friends and Family, serving treats like olive oil fried eggs with grilled olive bread until 3 p.m. daily in Thai Town.
The wave extends well beyond Southern California. Jonathan Brooks, owner of Milktooth in Indianapolis, was the first chef to be named a mkgalleryamp; Wine Best New Chef without offering dinner service back in 2015. In Pittsburgh, James Beard “Rising Star Chef” Becca Hegarty and her partners opened Bitter Ends Garden & Luncheonette to serve creative dishes made from produce mostly sourced from their own quarter-acre organic farm. And Charleston stalwart Hominy Grill recently cut its dinner service to focus on daytime meals and private events.
Virgilio Martínez of Peru opened his latest ancestral Andean cuisine concept, Mil, 11,706 feet above sea level, earlier this year. It’s open from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m.
Those tighter hours give chefs more time to have lives outside the kitchen. Geiskopf and his partner, David Wynn, spend some of their spare time working with Akasa, a non-profit that teaches kids about urban farming and cooking.
Though Koslow pops into Sqirl seven days week when she’s in LA, she’s able to attend spin classes, swim, and spend time with her husband and dog. The daytime-only hours allow her to have a regular night-time relationship with her husband, says Koslow. “We go out to dinner with friends and we have a normal life that most chefs can’t.”
Though it seems like these breezy cafés should allow their owners and chefs to live breezier lives, many struggle to earn a decent living. Diners who don't blink at a $100 dinner for two balk at lunch tabs that are half that. Lower price-points make it tough for even the busiest daytime restaurants to pay the bills.
“You could do fish for $26 at lunch, but no one is buying that,” says Koslow. “Most people would much rather buy a sorrel pesto rice bowl for $8.” Sqirl’s large jam-producing prep kitchen allows it to make money on volume, sending out dishes quickly and efficiently.
Nicholas Morgenstern, owner of New York City’s vegetable-centric cafe El Rey, has been avoiding dinner service, but says it’s not sustainable.
“The ideal situation is that you don't have to be open for dinner every day,” says Morgenstern. “Costs are so high in Manhattan it doesn’t make sense [to fully skip dinner service].” A newly hired chef will roll out dinner service a few nights a week soon.
Geiskopf has experimented with dinner service for a couple weeks in an effort to increase business but with few seats, low tables, and no alcohol service, business was slow. At the moment, he’s happy to be able to cook the kind of food he wants to cook and pay his employees.
“We’re O.K. with it totally just existing and being able to pay its bills,” he says. “Triniti is the platform for us to be able to sit down, have coffee and start a dialogue about new projects.”
In fact, for many of these daytime-focused restaurateurs, creating a healthy kitchen culture for their staff feels like the greatest advantage to limiting hours of service. Triniti’s chefs work eight hour shifts with 30 minute breaks. Former Joel Robuchon pastry chef Nathaniel Reid’s new namesake St. Louis bakery has been able to attract talented dessert chefs from as far away as Japan and South Africa by offering fine dining-level experiences along with 401(k) and profit-sharing in addition to limiting shifts to seven and a half hours, giving everyone two days off per week and shutting down Sundays and holidays.
“I’ve spent 18 years in the business and I’ve been on the other side of it,” Reid says. “It’s hard to make that decision to close, but it’s the right way to keep everyone fresh, alive, and invigorated.”
Beyond economic challenges, there are personal ones. For many in the dining world, the yardstick of success will always be dinner.
Even though Koslow is the reigning monarch of daylight-only success—with a constantly busy restaurant, well reviewed cookbook, thriving jam business and a soon-to-debut takeout service, Sqirl Away—she’s still looking to open a seated dinner service concept. The former competitive figure skater loves to push herself and wants to take on the challenge of evening service, says Koslow. “I’ve realized that my work-life balance includes activities that make me feel like I’m growing as a person.”