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Boston Restaurants Are Experimenting With Zoom and FaceTime to Recreate Dining Out Vibes

It might be “weird as hell to have a random FaceTime chat with the neighborhood ice cream shop” — but these are weird as hell times

Four paintings overhang wooden booth seating inside a beer hall
Brighton’s Brato Brewhouse is hosting beer dinners and more over Zoom
Dana Hatic/Eater

Bars and restaurants across the state are currently closed for dine-in service due to the coronavirus pandemic, but that isn’t stopping some businesses from offering customers some modicum of hospitality in other ways, taking advantage of virtual platforms to host booze classes and other events — or even just to connect with customers as they eat dinner.

Take Brato Brewhouse, for example. The Brighton brewpub has already hosted a few virtual events, including a “hell night” in which customers place orders for a ready-to-eat meal kit that comes with chicken wings (or fried cauliflower) and six sauces of differing heat, each incrementally hotter than the last. Customers join the event via Zoom, and Brato personnel walk them through the wing-eating process, explaining the nuances of each hot sauce. Bonus fun: Everyone gets to watch as everyone else deals with (or doesn’t deal with) each new level of heat.

“Wing night is something people love,” said Brato co-founder and executive chef Jonathan Gilman. “This gives people some semblance of that back.”

“Hell night” isn’t Brato’s only virtual gambit — the brewpub is hosting five-course beer dinners, also over Zoom. So far, Brato has partnered with a pair of local breweries — Lamplighter, which is based in Cambridge, and Castle Island, which is based in Norwood — to bring customers an event that feels like a big, communal dinner party. (Brato is planning a third such event on April 26, this time partnering with Idle Hands brewery in Malden.)

Brato provides the food — enough to feed two people — while the participating brewery provides a four-pack of beer. Gilman told Eater that they sold 115 meal kits for the most recent event, and roughly 100 people participated in the Zoom call.

“Representatives from Brato talk about the food, and representatives from the breweries talk about the beer,” said Gilman. “It’s educational and fun, and it’s an open forum where people can ask us questions.”

Brato Brewhouse — which opened six months ago after over two years of planning and pop-up events — is in the same tricky position as many new restaurants. Finding any stream of revenue is crucial to staying afloat until a time when it’s safe to welcome customers back into its dining room.

“There’s nothing more challenging than being told you have to be a restaurant but can’t have guests into your restaurant,” said Gilman. “By no means are we doing the sales that we were doing before the pandemic hit, but efforts like these have helped mitigate that.”

In addition to events like “hell night” and virtual dinner parties, Brato is about to launch a virtual catering business geared toward folks who had to cancel large gatherings due to the spread of COVID-19. Folks can plan a Zoom party (or use the platform of their choosing), and Brato will cook enough food to feed every person involved in the digital hangout.

“We’ll deliver the food to pickup points or directly to the doorsteps of every person at that party,” said Gilman. “That way everyone can enjoy the same menu at the same time. We hope it will help create some version of that experience that was supposed to be celebratory.”

Gracie’s Ice Cream — which operates on the corner of Union and Washington Street in Somerville’s Union Square — has had less success so far with virtual hospitality, but owner Aaron Cohen is just getting started with it. Cohen sent an email to the shop’s subscriber list on April 19 informing customers that Gracie’s would be accepting pint pre-orders for pickup with the option to also book “short FaceTime calls about ice cream” where Cohen will be “behind the counter at Gracie’s or in [his] basement hiding from children,” an attempt to recreate the shop’s counter service experience. (He got the idea from a restaurant in Philadelphia that has been using FaceTime to recreate the restaurant experience at home, he told Eater.) “It’s important for businesses to continue to maintain a connection with the people in their neighborhood,” Cohen said to Eater, “and that seemed like a fun way to do it.”

But customers haven’t been into it, at least not yet. Cohen admitted it might be “weird as hell to have a random FaceTime chat with the neighborhood ice cream shop” and said that that’s probably why none of his customers have engaged to this point. It was also hidden among topping options in an admittedly confusing pre-ordering system that he’s revamping.

“Ask me again tomorrow, maybe someone will have selected it!”

A Long-Awaited Brighton Brewery Is Open, and There Are Grilled Cheese Flights [EBOS]
Apricot Stone Will FaceTime You to Recreate the Restaurant Experience at Home [EPHI]
COVID-19 Coverage on Eater [EBOS]

Gracie's Ice Cream

22 Union Square, , MA 02143 (617) 764-5294 Visit Website

Brato Brewhouse & Kitchen

190 North Beacon Street, , MA 02135 (617) 903-3766 Visit Website

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