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9 California Restaurants That Opened During the Pandemic

These Golden State restaurateurs forged ahead and got creative despite uncertain times

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Posted 10 months agoby Tina Caputo

New restaurant launches are often years in the making—from the idea phase to the design stage to menu creation. So what happens when a pandemic puts a wrench in those plans? For California’s resilient restaurateurs, quitting just isn’t an option. Instead, they get creative and roll with the changes.

Brandon Kida, chef at Hinoki & the Bird in Los Angeles, planned to open a Japanese-style tavern in Hollywood before the pandemic hit. But as the shutdowns wore on, he realized that he needed a more takeout-friendly concept. In December 2020, he launched Go Go Bird, offering “Los Angeles–style fried chicken” for takeout and delivery.

“It's all about being able to adapt and try new things,” says Kida, who hopes to open his original restaurant concept this spring while keeping Go Go Bird going even after the pandemic. “We’re having a lot of fun with fried chicken.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Folktable (@folktable_)

Likewise, Casey Thompson, chef-owner at Folktable in Sonoma, never had second thoughts about opening a restaurant during a pandemic. She simply forged ahead, launching Folktable in early December.

“We are lucky that we never opened with seated tables and actual plates,” she says, “so we started with COVID restrictions. The only challenge for me has been plating all of our wonderful food in a box. We plan to roll out our full outdoor dining experience with our spring menu, and we are so excited!”

For Brian Dodero, co-owner and chef at Aperitivo in Santa Barbara, the pandemic provided inspiration for an innovative takeout concept for his Italian wine bar and small-plates destination. “From the beginning, we knew we would have to think outside of the box and offer something unique and special,” he says, “and so the Pasta e Vino club was born.” Each week, the restaurant offers Italian wines paired with fresh pasta and housemade sauce from a particular region of Italy.

Now Dodero is gearing up to resume patio service in late February. “We’ve been optimistic from the beginning that things will only get better,” he says. “With the vaccine rollouts and COVID numbers dropping, we expect a thriving economy by the time the warm weather arrives.”

What’s more, with outdoor dining now reopened in most California counties, many of the state’s established restaurants are back in the game—giving diners even more delicious options in the months to come. From Fog Harbor Fish House and Pier Market on San Francisco’s Pier 39 to République in Los Angeles, outdoor dining options abound.

Here are nine new restaurants to explore during your next California adventure, listed north to south.

Wickson Restaurant, Philo

Set in the former Stone and Embers space in the Madrones, Wickson presents internationally inspired wood-fired cuisine made with locally sourced produce, meats, and fish. Chefs Alexa and Rodney Workman, both veterans of Chez Panisse, treat each ingredient with care, whether they’re dishing up roasted beets and carrots with hummus, or housemade sausage and crispy potatoes.

Folktable Restaurant, Sonoma

Top Chef finalist and fan favorite Casey Thompson’s new eatery puts passionate emphasis on seasonal, sustainable ingredients from surrounding farms and artisan purveyors. Folktable’s opening menu includes delights like chicken-fat ginger rice with Dungeness crab and black truffle chicken hand-pies.

Nash & Proper, Sacramento

What started as a fleet of food trucks slinging Sacramento’s hottest Nashville-style fried chicken now includes a downtown brick-and-mortar location. Offered as bone-in pieces, tenders, and sandwiches, Nash & Proper’s finger-lickin’ chicken comes in five different spice levels, from “Naked” to “Cluckin’ Hot”—served with white bread and pickles to tame the heat.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by APERITIVO (@aperitivo_sb)

Aperitivo Wine Bar, Santa Barbara

Before teaming up with sommelier Andrea Girardello to open Aperitivo, Santa Barbara native Brian Dodero made mouths water at the S.B. Test Kitchen pop-up series, the Pasta Shoppe, and the Coral Casino at the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore. Along with outdoor dining (reopening around mid-February), the small-plates wine bar offers a weekly takeout menu that pairs biodynamic Italian wines with regional pasta dishes.

Go Go Bird, Los Angeles

Described by founder and chef Brandon Kida as an ode to the iconic Los Angeles Pioneer Chicken fast-food chain, Go Go Bird serves up L.A.–style takeout fried chicken with a twist. Kida marinates Jidori chicken—the Kobe beef of poultry—in flavorful spices, then fries and finishes it with a Szechuan-style chili oil, so it’s crispy, spicy and full of flavor.

Gabino's Creperie, Palm Springs

Many people think of crepes as thin pancakes wrapped around delicate fillings, but Gabino's in Palm Springs takes a heartier approach. Served in a paper cone wrapper, crepes are stuffed with heaping portions of chicken, veggies, crispy onions, and savory dressings. Order at the service window, then grab a seat in the cute alley next door to Kreem Ice Cream + Coffee.

Heritage Barbecue, San Juan Capistrano

Locals have been lining up for pitmaster Daniel Castillo’s Texas-style smoked meats since Heritage Barbecue opened last August in San Juan Capistrano. Order brisket, pulled pork, sausages, and ribs by the pound, choose from sides like Texas queso and jalapeño creamed corn, then hunker down at a picnic table with a cold beer and some of SoCal’s best barbecue.

Be Good Restaurant & Experience, Temecula

In Old Town Temecula, Be Good Restaurant & Experience offers way more than a welcoming patio, bubble-dome dining, and well-crafted Mexican-inspired eats. Once pandemic restrictions are lifted, the space will be an entertainment hub providing an array of fun experiences, from murder mystery shows to craft cocktail classes to adventurous dining in a pitch-dark room.

The Shop, San Diego

The Shop, San Diego

The Shop is San Diego's new hot spot for West Coast deep-dish and traditional pizzas. Founders Brett and Cole Herring earned their pizza-making stripes at Little Star in San Francisco, so you know they’re dishing out some seriously delicious pies. Don’t miss the 858, a combination of spinach, mushrooms and crispy bacon; or The Veg, stuffed with roasted zucchini, kalamata olives, and red peppers.

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