New Restaurants Share the Ups and Downs of Opening Amid COVID-19

Photograph courtesy of Cafe Sevilla

Never would we have imagined a takeout meal would be the high point of our day. Behind the scenes, though, our beloved restaurants scrambled to satisfy diners, pay the rent, and please inscrutable bureaucracies in a new game with changing rules. The challenge was extra intense for places that opened or were set to open right before March’s stay-at-home edict. Here’s a behind-the-scenes peek at three new places with comments from their owners: Russ Bendel Jr. of Sapphire, Cellar. Craft. Cook. in Laguna Beach; Anne Van den Haute of Cafe Sevilla in Costa Mesa; and Justin Werner, chef-partner at Porch & Swing in Irvine.

What aspects of this reality are surprisingly difficult or odd?
Not interacting with loyal guests is a challenge. Getting back to a basic model gives a good reflection of what people want during this time.
Sevilla: Every day is so fluid; staying up to date is a challenge.
Porch & Swing: Choosing only menu items that travel well, and considering how the guest is going to assemble it once they get home.

What’s your menu’s hero?
Our paellas
Sapphire: Schnitzel with house-made spaetzle.
Porch & Swing: Fried Chicken Sandwich, which was to be a fried chicken meal before we switched gears to make it more takeout friendly.

Have you come up against any shortages?
Porch & Swing:
We’ve had to look out for shady purveyors to be sure products are genuine and fresh.
Sevilla: Reducing our hours reduces our demand, so we haven’t faced any shortages.

Sapphire: Specialty produce items are hard to come by consistently. We search out high-quality substitutes.

One word that describes your last 30 days?

Sapphire: Adaptation

Sevilla: Challenging

Porch & Swing: Learning

What lifts you up?

Sevilla: Our guests have been absolutely incredible, supporting us through curbside pickup, communicating with us on social media, and encouraging our solid place in the community.

Sapphire: Seeing how hard everyone is working together to adapt and serve our communities.

If you weren’t busy with your customers, what would you order from another O.C. restaurant?

Sevilla: Always consider a restaurant’s signature dish and never be disappointed.

Porch & Swing: Rice patties at Din Tai Fung, yakitori at Shin-Sen-Gumi, steamed buns at Playground.

Sapphire: Ice-cold oysters on the half shell

Revenue aside, what do you miss most about your restaurant before takeout-only days?

Sapphire: The fun energy of a busy dining room filled with guests and staff enjoying the moment together.

Sevilla: The everyday optimism of our employees.

Porch & Swing: We spent several months designing a restaurant for dine-in, only to switch gears before ever opening officially. We’re doing the best we can with the hand we’ve been dealt.

Favorite adult beverage after a
tough day?

Porch & Swing: Green Cheek Hazy IPA

Sapphire: Bourbon-based craft cocktail

Sevilla: Sangria, of course!

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