The COVID-19 pandemic crashed through the Med City restaurant scene in 2020 like a toddler smashing a tower of blocks.
Now as the virus’ deadly tantrum is calming down, many of the blocks remain standing as others have been rebuilt into a new landscape. Some old pieces are in new places. Some new pieces stand in places left open by closures. Of course, some popular restaurants are completely gone.
Of the ones still standing, many had features that helped them weather it.
“The ones that had a drive-thru and pizza places that already knew how to do delivery seemed to do OK. Everywhere you went, you saw lines at drive-thru windows. Some pizza places stayed busy and even had one of their best years,” said Rochester Restaurant Supply owner Tom Fleming.
Of course, many places without those advantages didn’t make it through the worst of the pandemic. Rochester saw Tonic - Local Kitchen & Juice Bar, Daube’s Bakery, Dooley’s Irish Pub, Legends Bar, The Loop, the Petite Cafe and Lettuce Unite close their doors forever.
Others closed, but then returned either in a different form or under new owners.
Chef Youness Bojji and his wife, Amber Bojji, closed Casablanca in the Barlow Plaza. However, they were soon back serving Rochester with Chez Bojji and Amber’s Pub in the former Petite Cafe space on North Broadway.
Charlie Zhao sadly closed Rochester’s Jenpachi Japanese Steak House, but a customer purchased it and re-opened it, five months after it went dark. “I thought Rochester deserved to have this restaurant open again,” said Jenpachi’s new owner, Greg Zoller, in December.
The popular Taco Lab food truck is transforming the ex-Daube’s building at 1310 Fifth Place NW into a space for a new restaurant. Scooter’s Coffee stepped up to open in Daube’s former South Broadway Daube’s location.
Many fans were unhappy when the Currie brothers of Creative Cuisine closed their popular 300 First restaurant in July. Now Linda Black, sister to the Curries, is cooking up a new eatery in that space. She hopes to soon start serving wood-fired pizzas there under the name of Tilda's Pizzeria.
Overall, there is a new energy among Rochester’s restaurants as the weather is starting to warm up. Customers are returning in crowds, which is causing stress as most places are still short-handed and struggling to find employees. However, that is a good problem compared to days of empty dining rooms.
“The parking lots look full again. Everybody is getting their outdoor seating ready,” said Fleming of Rochester Restaurant Supply.
Even more encouraging signs than full parking lots and “Help Wanted” notices are the “Coming Soon” banners for new Med City restaurants.
Andy and Kari Friederichs are in the final stages of transforming a forgotten industrial building from the 1930s at 1232 Third Ave. SE into a classic-style food hall with six food vendors, a bar and an old-school men’s barbershop under the same roof. The complex will be called The Workshop. They hope to open in June.
David and Mark Currie of Creative Cuisine have their own new project cooking on the west end of the former Shopko North complex at 3708 U.S. 63 North. They are building out a new 6,700-square-foot restaurant to be called The Purple Goat.
The Purple Goat will add to Creative Cuisine’s Med City portfolio that includes four Newt's, City Market Deli, Hefe Rojo, and Redwood Room. When completed, this will be the largest Creative Cuisine restaurant in Rochester.
A couple of smaller scale eateries are also gearing up to bring new tastes to Rochester diners.
Lance and LaRayne Patterson are working on opening a Rosati's Authentic Chicago Pizza restaurant franchise in Rochester’s Barlow Plaza. Chicksie’s Hot Chicken Joint is being built out in the former Subway spot at South Broadway and 20th Street Southeast.
Elsewhere, Popeye’s Chicken and the beloved IHOP chains are in the early stages of building Rochester restaurants.
Tallying up the damage done to the Med City food scene by the pandemic is tough to calculate, There were some big, permanent losses. However, some changes or “pivots” made many survivors stronger than before. And now new restaurants are starting to sprout up.
It doesn’t look the same, but Rochester’s restaurant scene is still standing.