Hopping Back in Time at Ruffino’s Carhop

You could say the solution for carrying on business during the novel coronavirus pandemic was presented to chef Ryan Crawford on a silver platter.

Well, technically, it was an aluminum tray. But it is silver in colour. Even better, it attaches to a car window. That way it can serve as the vessel for Ruffino’s Pasta Bar & Grill Carhop, a drive-in dining experience in Niagara-on-the-Lake that gets people out of the house in a time of hunkering down.

“It’s really making the best of a bad situation,” Crawford said.

And it’s doing it using a dining format that was on the verge of becoming an anachronism until a modern-day health crisis changed everything about the way we live — and eat at restaurants.

Crawford launched the Ruffino’s Carhop last May, nearly 80 years after cars pulled into what’s believed to be the world’s first drive-in in Dallas, Texas, for chicken fried steak sandwiches washed down with milkshakes. The concept caught on in fast food dining with servers — carhops — outfitted in roller skates, delivering burgers and fries on one silver aluminum trays to guests in parked cars.

Then along came the drive-thru, heralded for its efficiency in serving people quickly and with fewer hands to do it. The sun seemed to have set on the drive-in until May 15 when Crawford, with 36 new carhop trays in hand, took to social media to announce he would offer one at Ruffino’s as an alternative to takeout. The invitation to locals to pull into the Ruffino’s parking lot on Friday and Saturday nights and dine in the comfort and safety cars couldn’t have come at a better time. Niagara was reaching peak quarantine and people were craving social activity as much as the wood-fired pizzas and handmade pastas, including the calling cards Carbonara and Bolognese, that Crawford and his staff have become known for serving.

Even better, dinner could be enjoyed with a milkshake, too.

The Ruffino’s Carhop also helped fill a void for Crawford, who enjoys interacting with diners — something that just doesn’t happen with the takeout-only model.

“It allows (guests) to see their friends and not over zoom. That’s why people have dinner together. It’s to be with other people. This lets you have dinner with friends again,” Crawford told the St. Catharines Standard after launching the concept.

To bring the the Carhop into the modern age, the sounds of DJ Marinko spinning the restaurant’s soundtrack of old-school Rockabilly can be streamed on car stereos while guests nosh on ’za and noodles.

But if it’s dining in house that people are truly missing, Crawford has made sure he has a seat at the table — not just the window tray — for everyone.

As COVID-19 restrictions have loosened, Crawford added a six-table patio that allows for safe physical distancing while dining. Guests can order à la carte or experience the tasting menu after 8 p.m. nightly.

Called Menu Tutto, the five-course tasting menu features regional Italian-inspired dishes made with luxury ingredients from the Ruffino’s farm. Dishes can change daily depending on the finer points of the growing season.

Crawford has also re-opened the Ruffino’s dining room, keeping reservations to only six tables and with plexiglass between each, including at the bar where diners can safely watch the kitchen staff cook over wood-fire, just like times before the pandemic.

“(One regular) said ’It’s honestly exactly the same (as before the pandemic). We feel safe. Honestly, it might be better because the plexiglass is blocking some of the heat (from the fire)’ ” he said. “That’s a great compliment.”

Ruffino’s Pasta Bar & Grill, 242 Mary Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake

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