Five days after its first dinner service in March 2020, Encino restaurant Pasta|Bar closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. It spent the next year navigating shifting closures and operating restrictions, but the Italian tasting menu concept by Chef Phillip Frankland Lee celebrated its grand reopening on April 16.
“We’re sold out this weekend and we’re probably at 80 percent capacity for the next couple of weeks,” Lee said in an interview on opening night.
The public interest, Lee said, feels like a strong signal that patrons are ready to get back to the experience of dining at a restaurant after a year of mostly take-out.
Pasta|Bar, one of Lee and his wife and pastry chef Margarita Kallas-Lee’s six dining concepts in the area, features a $125 per person 10-course tasting menu focused on fresh pastas, seasonal flavors and intimate, small group dinner service. With only eight seats in the restaurant, each one positioned to look into the kitchen, the meal is meant to be immersive and interactive, allowing diners to watch and talk with the chefs as they cook and serve each course. The intimacy of the experience, Lee said, was impossible to replicate with outdoor dining and take-out.
“We’re not inexpensive. So, it’s one thing to go out and have like a two or three hour dining experience in a setting where you’re interacting and to pay for that type of thing,” Lee said. “The thing is, it cost us the same amount of money to put out food, whether you’re sitting in front of us or not. So, sometimes it’s hard to, you know, spend that kind of money on takeout food, but it’s not that hard to do if you go to a restaurant.”While the restaurant pivoted briefly to take-out in May and patio dining for a while during the summer months, it made more financial sense to close the doors entirely in November when restrictions tightened over the holiday season. In that time, Lee took as many members of his crew as he could to open a new Sushi|Bar restaurant in Texas, where there were fewer business limitations.“We’re doing everything we absolutely can to keep people employed, that’s our number one priority,” Lee said. “And the goal is to create jobs and to retain jobs, because we’re not back up to what we were before this pandemic started, but we’ve done as best as we could.”