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Surviving the shutdown: Dear John’s launches new heat-and-eat TV dinners

Clockwise from top left, vegetable lasagna, steak au poivre, chicken Parmesan and meatloaf "salisbury" TV dinners from Dear John's. The meals are available for takeout at Röckenwagner market in Culver City.
Clockwise from top left, vegetable lasagna, steak au poivre, chicken Parmesan and meatloaf “salisbury” TV dinners from Dear John’s. The meals are available for takeout at Röckenwagner market in Culver City.
(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing shutdown have left many restaurants uncertain about their future. As they grapple with new realities, we asked some of them to share their stories.

When Dear John’s steakhouse was brought back to life last year, it quickly became one of the hardest reservations to score in the city. Diners couldn’t get enough of the tableside Caesar salads tossed in the impossibly dark dining room, served alongside excellent steaks and martinis. A demolition date set for April 2021 made it feel even more impermanent and seductive.

For the record:

11:54 AM, Apr. 15, 2020An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Hans Röckenwagner designed the aluminum trays. He designed a holder for the trays.

Like many businesses around the state, the Culver City restaurant has temporarily closed its doors during the coronavirus shutdown. But co-owners Patti and Hans Röckenwagner and Josiah Citrin are hoping to bring back some of its dishes in the form of Dear John’s TV dinners, now available at their Röckenwagner Bakery in Culver City.

Stepping into Dear John’s in Culver City, my pupils dilate as far as they can.

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“It felt like a good opportunity to provide convenience and bring some of the Dear John’s fun and nostalgia and ethos to people,” Patti said.

There are four dinners available daily for pickup or delivery: a version of the restaurant’s chicken Parm, served with spaghetti marinara and creamed spinach; vegetable lasagna with creamed spinach and creamed corn ; meatloaf Salisbury with porcini gravy, potato purée, peas and carrots and creamed spinach; and steak au poivre in a three peppercorn brandy sauce with peas and carrots and potato purée.

A vegetable lasagna TV dinner from Dear John's, sold at Röckenwagner market.
A vegetable lasagna TV dinner from Dear John’s, sold at Röckenwagner market.
(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

They are served in sectioned aluminum trays and meant to be heated in a 350-degree oven for 25 to 30 minutes and cost $18 to $30. Additional sides of creamed corn, creamed spinach and garlic bread are also available. And you can add half bottles of wine to your order starting Friday.

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The idea for the dinners initially came up months ago as a way to celebrate the restaurant’s one-year anniversary on Thursday. The plan was to serve them in the Dear John’s dining room out of the aluminum trays, which were to sit in a special holder designed by Hans Röckenwagner.

With the restaurant shut for now, Patti Röckenwagner decided to do the meals as a takeout option.

“In the restaurant, we were going to make it a little bougie and put shaved truffles on top, maybe even a dollop of caviar on the whipped potatoes, tableside,” she said. “Obviously that doesn’t work now, but the idea of the TV dinner still does.”

These L.A. restaurants now sell groceries, produce boxes, dry goods, beer and wine and more.

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Patti said she is using some of the original Dear John’s cooking crew to make the TV dinners; other employees are helping out at the bakery, which is now doubling as a market with produce, dairy and flour.

That’s helping supplement the bakery’s revenue, which saw its wholesale business drop by half after the “Safer at Home” order was announced.

“I feel like I’ve lived a lifetime in a month; everyone feels that way,” Patti said. “I like working on the TV dinners even though there’s a lot of other things I need to do. But this is actually kind of fun.”

12835 Washington Blvd., Los Angeles, rockenwagnermarket.com

Updates

9:41 AM, Apr. 15, 2020: This story was updated to include new menu information regarding the TV dinners.


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