Chef and owner Sho Kamio stands outside Iyasare on Fourth Street. Photo: Pete Rosos

A world without restaurants. Sho Kamio, owner and head chef of Iyasare in Berkeley, can’t seem to shake it. The thought flits around his head like flies circling a rotten apple.

“I’m scared of the future, of people getting used to this curbside and delivery world we’re in,” Kamio said. “I’m scared of people not going to restaurants anymore.”

Iyasare’s total revenue is down 90%, even with healthy curbside pickup sales. The restaurant’s struggle is symptomatic of one of the industry’s more pressing issues — COVID-19 has turned traditional elevated dining experiences obsolete.

“I know our reputation,” Kamio said. “We plate beautifully. We highlight the freshness of our ingredients. We make sure the temperature of your food is just right. Those parts are gone [with] curbside takeout.”

“Iyasare” roughly translates from Japanese to English as the word “healed.” It is Kamio’s ethos, shorthand for his belief in the therapeutic properties of good food and good company.

“A meal can make you happy. A meal can start conversations. But food is not just a meal. It’s more. It’s about showing people a culture.” — Sho Kamio

“A meal can make you happy,” Kamio said. “A meal can start conversations. But food is not just a meal. It’s more. It’s about showing people a culture.”

COVID-19 has forced Iyasare to reconsider the long-term viability of its identity. Kamio said he and his team have daily conversations “about what we’re going to do and what we could be.” They shudder at the dystopian idea of a “James Beard Best New Curbside Restaurant” one day. They’re keeping a close eye on peers with similar dilemmas undertaking alternative ventures.

“My friend opened a food truck, but nobody is coming,” said Nate Gabriel, Iyasare’s executive chef. “We have friends who’ve turned their businesses into small markets. We have friends doing meal delivery systems. Nobody has hit a home run.”

Shelter-in-place orders have relaxed in recent weeks. Most Bay Area counties, including Berkeley and the rest of Alameda County, have allowed restaurants to reopen for outdoor dining. Although Iyasare has a patio, which it will reopen July 1, Kamio and Gabriel aren’t convinced outdoor dining will bring the sustained relief they need, especially without the reduction of commercial rent costs. They say they are in a holding pattern, not wanting to waste increasingly limited resources to try something new just for it to backfire.

‘They’re not looking for high-end food’

Yoshika Hedberg, partner and general manager of Fish & Bird in Berkeley thinks trying something new is at least worth a shot.

“We’ve decided to start doing Japanese sandwiches and burgers, that type of thing,” she said.

Fish & Bird is the new kid on the block, so to speak. When it opened in January, the owners wanted to do something unique in the Berkeley community, offering a fresh, reimagined izakaya-style menu with Californian and global influences. But COVID-19 threw a wrench in that blueprint, and Hedberg noticed a growing public appetite in recent weeks for something not initially part of Fish & Bird’s DNA.

“When we opened, we were going for high-end, modern Japanese food,” Hedberg said. “But I think everybody feels, to a degree, stressed and worried and anxious right now. A lot of people are out of work, unemployed. Everyone’s trying to save money. They’re not looking for high-end food.”

Enter: Fish & Bird’s new take-out burgers and sandwiches.

Hedberg shares Kamio’s concern for the future of high-end restaurants. But she doesn’t feel like Fish & Bird can afford to wait and see what that looks like. On June 19, Fish & Bird started serving some customers outside. Hedberg said she wasn’t given any instruction or guidelines from the city on or before that day. Fish & Bird has a permit for a small amount of outdoor seating, but the area only has room for about 10 seats, “which is nothing,” according to Hedberg. “I am hoping they would allow us to use more sidewalk area.”

“Whenever we open our dining room back up, we’ll return to our izakaya menu,” Hedberg said. “But we need to push this to-go business for as long as COVID-19 is around. We need it to survive, and we can’t do that with what we were serving in our dining room. That food is more complicated. It requires some explanation. These sandwiches don’t really require explanation.”

The new dishes are still Japanese. Still inspired. Still full of original, thoughtful ideas. But more familiar and deliberately accessible than Fish & Bird ever cared to be before COVID-19.

“Food makes you happy,” Hedberg said, “and the type of food that makes people happiest right now is what they know they like. Our menu is more Westernized than we originally thought it’d be, but it’s still true to what’s relevant in Japan today.”

Hedberg references Mos Burger, Japan’s second-largest burger chain, known for fusion offerings like burgers with rice-patty buns, as well as a wave of independent Japanese artisan burger and sandwich purveyors. Fish & Bird wants to stay true to Japan’s current culinary trends, but also wants to satisfy people looking for simple Americana indulgence.

“My chefs are amazing,” she said. “They’re working on how to do this the right way, so our flavors speak to Japanese people as well as American people.”

‘The second you aren’t changing, sales go down’

But this kind of constant adaptation can be draining. Sergio Monleón, owner of La Marcha Tapas Bar in Berkeley, says he’s had to make significant changes to his restaurant every week during the COVID-19 crisis.

“It’s crucial,” Monleón said about the need to evolve in today’s climate, “I hate to say this word because it’s been used to death, but we have to “pivot” every week, and it’s exhausting. There’s no time off. The second you aren’t changing with the times, sales go down, because people’s needs are constantly evolving. They could be concerned about health one week, then want to go out and do something the next.”

La Marcha is one of the East Bay restaurants dipping their toes into new ventures, like Fish & Bird. In May, Monleón launched a La Marcha off-shoot restaurant called Croqueta Burger. Riffing off La Marcha’s signature croqueta tapas (deep-fried bite-sized and stuffed fritters, with fillings like spicy chicken and gruyere cheese; ham and Swiss cheese; wild mushroom and manchego cheese), Monleón shapes the fritters into burger patty form, loads them with toppings and serves them on a seeded Acme bun.

Spanish wine lovers — get thee to La Marcha.
La Marcha now sells a large selection of Spanish wines by the bottle. Photo: La Marcha Tapas Bar

Monleón also opened a new wine shop within La Marcha (The Mile Limit, the standalone wine store opening a few doors down from the restaurant is still to come). As La Marcha does not have a designated outdoor dining area, Monleón says selling wine in-house not only unlocks the restaurant as a neighborhood alcohol retailer, but is also a speculative investment if and when the city of Berkeley expands outdoor seating options to open spaces, like the Berkeley Marina.

“If they close streets off,” Monleón said, “allowing people to drink anywhere from the marina to the sidewalks, we want to be able to offer to-go meal packages, and we want our wine shop to complement that. We’d become a sort of one-stop shop for an outdoor dining experience.” For now, La Marcha is open for takeout and delivery only.

Monleón is trying to stay ahead, but he can’t seem to catch a break. On June 13, La Marcha had an employee test positive for the COVID-19 virus, and they had to shut down temporarily as a result.

“Luckily, their symptoms are pretty mild and everyone else (on the staff) came back negative,” Monleón said, a few days after the restaurant announced the COVID-19 positive employee. “This won’t change how we do things moving forward, aside from closing for a week and deep cleaning everything, quarantining the employee for two weeks and requiring all of us to go in for weekly tests.”

La Marcha ended up closing for an additional week. On Wednesday, the restaurant posted an update on Instagram that it will reopen Friday. It also shared that all 10 staffers were tested, eight had negative results, but two staffers who live in the same household tested positive with mild symptoms and “won’t return to work until they test negative multiple times.” The restaurant also added that it will be implementing further measures not mentioned by Monleón when Nosh last spoke to him, including reducing the number of employees working during each shift and more training and communication to ensure workers avoid group social gatherings and other high-risk activities.

There are no elegant solutions for any of this. COVID-19 has thrust the restaurant industry into an unprecedented era, and establishments that were more elevated in nature that relied on packed dining rooms every night are in desperate need of answers.

Get the balance right

For some restaurants like Iyasare, the answers they seek are entirely external. They need to know if their rent can be adjusted to accommodate decreased capacity and sales. They’re waiting for guidance from county health departments. And even if they wanted to, a food truck or frozen meal delivery system just isn’t in the cards for them.

“We know people who are doing pre-made, boxed food,” said Gabriel. “But we don’t have the freezer space. We’re a Michelin-rated restaurant. Everything we did was fresh. We have freezer space for a few gallons of ice cream and that’s about it. We don’t have the space to freeze pre-made meals to be shipped out.”

Other restaurants like Fish & Bird and La Marcha have looked outward, with new menu items and retail ventures. But the challenge for all high-end restaurants remains the same: Striking the balance between a core, conceptual identity and surviving a world where people either can’t or don’t want to eat out.

Iyasare, 1830 Fourth St. (at Hearst Avenue), Berkeley; Fish & Bird Sousaku Izakaya, 2451 Shattuck Ave. (at Haste Street), Berkeley; La Marcha Tapas Bar, 2026 San Pablo Ave. (near University Avenue), Berkeley