My husband and I recently celebrated our 28th wedding anniversary with an opulent dinner at Altura Bistro. The meal had a double significance because it marked not only a happy personal milestone, but a broader milestone as well. It’s a bit harder to explain but it involves optimism, altruism and soup. Really, really good soup.
Altura Bistro was the last restaurant I went to before the first COVID closures in 2020. I wrote a glowing review of that meal — a review that never ran because less than a week later, we were all suddenly baking sourdough bread, vowing to finally clean out our basements, and learning how to use Zoom. I did learn to bake some decent bread in a Dutch oven, but my basement is still a dumpster fire. And don’t talk to me about Zoom.
We’ve certainly had plenty of restaurant meals since that time, but our celebration dinner felt like a paradigm shift. It was the first time we were eating out, in Anchorage, for its own sake. We weren’t picking up takeout, on our way to a show, or traveling in the Lower 48. We were there for the sole purpose of enjoying each other’s company and the delicious food coming out of an exceptional kitchen. The restaurant was the destination. It felt carefree and nostalgic. Ah, the good old days. When you’d dine out just to dine out.
Of course, the last few years have been tough on all of us, but restaurants have always been on the front lines. Abrupt shutdowns, spacing and occupancy restrictions, supply chain issues and staff shortages, to say nothing of stressed-out and sometimes unkind diners. This was all part of their daily bread.
And we needed them more than ever. Because as we all know, when the going gets tough, the tough get hungry — explaining, at least in part, all of that sourdough bread. Our family saw the Uncle Joe’s delivery man more often than we saw our next-door neighbors. We hosted our own Taco Tuesdays. We bought Lucky Wishbone chicken for socially distanced picnic get-togethers. And when boredom was our biggest enemy, we gathered around the online menu of some favorite eatery like it was a fireplace. A convivial team-building exercise warmed by the glow of the laptop.
Some restaurants — even a few landmarks — decided the universe was telling them something and shut their doors forever. Some, still in their infancy, weren’t quite up on their legs when the crisis upended them. But others pivoted and parried, managing to tough it out.
Altura Bistro is a great example of a restaurant that survived by being light on its feet. While a newly opened fine dining restaurant seems like an inevitable casualty of the pandemic’s perfect storm, they managed to develop a new and sustainable business model. They made it through with a combination of grit, imagination and even a little philanthropy. They developed a top-notch burger and sandwich takeout menu, packaged and sold their popular soups in bulk and donated bread and soup to Bean’s Cafe for every five bags sold. A combination of good deed, good business and good soup.
Lots of restaurants were showing this kind of heart and community spirit while simultaneously switching formats, changing menus, cutting hours and working with skeleton crews. As a food writer, it seemed like the wrong time to shed a light on their efforts. So, for the most part, while I didn’t hang up my knife and fork, I did hang up my food writing pen for a while.
That unpublished Altura Bistro review loomed large in my memory as a harbinger of the dark days to come. But there I was three years later, drinking champagne and eating New York steak and crisp house-made potato chips studded with caviar and crème fraiche. And let’s not forget the shrimp bisque, which was on the menu in February 2020 and is still on it today. Altura Bistro’s shrimp bisque: the official soup of stubborn optimism.
The restaurant business will always be tough and Alaskan owners and workers have to be even tougher — I’m writing this in between Snowpocalypse Nos. 2 and 3. But if we’ve learned anything from the last few years, it’s that you can’t keep Alaskans down.
I’m excited to begin restaurant coverage again and to highlight the incredible chefs, kitchens and dining rooms of Anchorage and its surrounds. From chefs to servers to delivery staff and everyone in between, the dining scene has had our backs and now it’s time to have theirs. So, go out to eat — or order takeout — tip generously and be kind.
As always, I want to hear from you. What’s your favorite pho? Where’s the best food truck parked? Which deli is — and has — an unsung hero? Anchorage food lovers are always my best source. Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.