On Monday, October 5, Detroit welcomed a new Jefferson Chalmers dining addition to its ranks with the official opening of East Eats — a restaurant entirely composed of geodesic domes. Billing itself as a “COVID-safe” dining option, East Eats is seeking to provide a safer alternative for eating out and socializing during the pandemic. “East Eats is born out of COVID, and the necessity to maintain and preserve human connection in a time where we have to be socially distant,” says founding partner Lloyd Talley.
Talley, a research fellow at the University of Michigan, alongside fellow Howard University grad and Detroit Black Restaurant Week co-founder Kwaku Osei-Bonsu, developed the restaurant with the goal of harnessing the logistical challenges of dining out in the pandemic to create a different style of communal eating. The partners are joined by chef Nygel Fyvie, a restaurant alum who most recently worked as a manager at the Kitchen by Cooking With Que.
East Eats is located on a side lot that Osei-Bonsu acquired from through a city program last year for just $100. On top of that open space, the partners have erected 10 geodesic domes with seats for up to eight people per group. (There are two additional domes for service staff.) Talley suggested the domes as a solution to East Eats’ shelter needs after experiencing eating at a rooftop restaurant composed of geodesic domes in New York and the partners leased a food truck to provide Fyvie with a kitchen space at a fraction of the cost of building out a traditional restaurant. “We really wanted the model for this business to be very lean, and for us to be very adaptable,” Talley says. “If you have a lease on a building right now, well, you’re basically screwed.”
In addition to rethinking the idea of what a restaurant can be in terms of space, the partners also considered how they could approach building a menu differently. East Eats’ Asian-influenced menu is composed of wraps, tacos, bao, and okonomiyaki (savory Japanese pancakes). Osei-Bonsu says before the pandemic he gravitated to restaurants that served family style meals and small plates, but the idea of sharing food has taken on a different quality during the pandemic. “Street food allows us to separate things,” he says. “[Customers] can still dine as a family without having to worry if am I touching his food or her food.”
The partners also wanted to approach pricing differently. “A big thing for us was making sure that we were vegan-forward,” Osei-Bonsu says. “You’ll find that most of the items on our menu are vegan first, and then you have the opportunity to add protein at no extra cost.” In an effort to keep costs low, the restaurant is also BYOB. Each reservation is two hours with a preference two groups of four or more. The partners tell Eater that there are a limited number of two-person seatings each evening.
Many restaurants in this moment restaurants have tried to focus on outdoor seating as a way to ensure better air circulation — a big factor in reducing the risk of COVID-19 infections. However, as the weather changes, eating on a patio begins to have its limits. As a result, some restaurants have begun installing geodesic dome tents for sheltered seating. But these structures have their challenges, too, as they limit the crucially important airflow that makes outdoor eating less risky. Chicago has even begun requiring restaurants to attach warning signs to those domes, outlining the risks of indoor dining.
East Eats’ owners are aware of the obstacles for geodesic domes, but believe that they’re providing one of the least risky versions of that option at their restaurant. Covered in coated canvas material, the domes are currently only half-enclosed, allowing for some cover from the elements as well as air circulation inside the tents. They’re also built on platforms, that allow for fresh air to come up through the base of the dome. In the winter, East Eats will likely close off the domes to ensure customers are warm enough, but will have the ability to open windows on fabric and continue to circulate air from outside the tent.
East Eats is taking other precautions as well, including controlling the number of guests visiting the side lot at any given time. All customers must make reservations for their table online through Tock for a five-item pre fixe menu. Reservations are $45 per-person, plus add ons. Once they are seated by the host, patrons are provided with a link that guides them to a digital menu for contactless ordering either individually or as a party. “Once [the order is] sent to the kitchen, our food runner or server will bring it out to you and ask you if you want to order anything beyond that,” Talley explains. “That’s really the extent of the contact beyond our service coming to make sure you’re okay and see if you need more water.”
As another COVID-19 precaution, customers will have the option to leave gratuity with their reservation to avoid their employees having to come in contact with cash. Patrons may also leave cash for their servers at the end of their meal if they prefer.
Ultimately, East Eats’ partners see their project as more than a restaurant but as an experiment in placemaking. “We see ourselves a dining experience, as well as an alternative land use experiment,” Talley says. In the future, the group envisions hosting voter registration drives on the site, outdoor film screenings, and community meetings. “We’re always looking for new partners and new ways to use the space,” he says.
East Eats is located at 1018 Navahoe St. in Detroit; open from 5 p.m. to midnight Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday; from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday (last seating at midnight); and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sunday (last seating at 8 p.m.); advanced reservations are required; BYOB; website.