Executive Chef Brian Lee oversees all food and catering at the Garden City Hotel.

Days before the Garden City Hotel would normally host its fancy-hatted annual Belmont Stakes festival in June, guests were instead toasting with to-go cups, celebrating the first week of outdoor dining’s return.

Although the hotel didn’t close during the coronavirus pandemic — traveling nurses and other essential workers stayed there during the peak — its restaurants, King Bar and Red Salt Room, conceptualized by celebrity Chef David Burke, remain temporarily closed as of press time, with catered events canceled. In place of the usual fine dining fare, Executive Chef Brian Lee has been cooking up inventive new family friendly casual menus for guests dining al fresco at the Patio Bar on the hotel’s spacious lawn.

“We brought the menu comfortably affordable, compared to our normal Garden City standard,” Lee says while presiding over dinner among the grass and trees. “We’re going to interest our locals by catching eyes with a great price and giving it back to the locals who’ve been a fan of our hotel.”

Patrons appeared thirsty to try the new menu, judging by brisk business at the Patio Bar during a recent visit on a weekday evening — with tables 6 feet apart to ensure social distancing and mask rules in effect, of course.

The hotel has also been open for takeout, curbside pickup, and to-go kits that take advantage of its top-notch inventory. There’s the Steakhouse Burgers Kit featuring the popular short rib burgers and all the sides, the Pizzaiola Kit with ingredients for the best homemade pizza ever to grace an oven, and the Curbside Butcher Kit that includes a choice of dry-aged steaks, chicken, or kielbasa.

To protect those staying at the hotel, the staff submits to daily temperature checks, requires guests to wear PPE, and management has rolled out the five-phase Rest Easy measure to put worried minds at ease. In addition to cleaning all rooms, housekeepers also disinfect high-touch points, sanitize rooms with a ULV(Ultra-low volume) atomization fogging machine, use virus-eliminating UV light disinfection application, then seal the room, following a management inspection. 

It’s a lot of work, but nothing that can’t be handled by a hotel that’s been around for 146 years, survived two world wars and multiple pandemics, and was founded when Ulysses S. Grant was president.

Chef Lee, who’s been working hotel kitchens for 15 years — most recently at Trump SoHo before coming to Garden City — has been the talent that sustains the kitchen during the crisis.

“Brian has put in a lot of long hours here,” says Carole Diaz, director of sales and marketing for the hotel. “He’s normally running a restaurant, a bar, and our entire banquets … All of a sudden, the hotel is lower occupancy, we have to figure out how we can still feed our guests and be creative with only very few people.”

Creative he has been, having tried four menus since the pandemic hit and already working on a fifth. A recent visit revealed the scrumptiousness of Lee’s chicken dumpling soup ($10), a divine rigatoni pomodoro with shrimp ($20), and a ginger pepper salmon ($20) grilled to perfection with sides of forbidden black rice, broccoli rabe, caper berries, and cherry tomatoes.

Of course, no trip to Garden City Hotel is complete without a sample of the famed Burke bacon, a thick-cut maple-glazed strip of sowbelly prepared with a chef’s torch. A staple at all of Burke’s restaurants, it’s normally served on a clothesline. But Chef Lee fired it up a notch, taking the chocolate-covered version of Burke bacon and adding a shaved almond and crushed pretzel crust. The result is as ridiculously delicious as it sounds.

The match baked in heaven stems from Chefs Lee and Burke, who both live in Fort Lee, New Jersey, sharing a flare for culinary precision.

“As crazy or as great as something is, you have to have a reason for it,” Burke previously told the Press. “And there has to be some fundamental foundation or groundwork from a regional perspective, seasonal perspective, or digestive perspective. You can’t just pull things out of midair.”

But what’s also fundamental in the current climate is rebuilding relationships with the regulars, which is what the new, more affordable menu is all about.

“True leaders, when the time is tough, actually find an opportunity to give back to the guests,” Lee says, “instead of trying to scrape them for another penny.”

The Garden City Hotel is located at 45 Seventh St., Garden City. It can be reached at gardencityhotel.com or 877-549-0400.

Related Story: Chef David Burke Brings Inspired Culinary Creativity to Garden City Hotel

Related Story: King Bar by David Burke and the Red Salt Room Debut at Garden City Hotel

For more food and drink coverage, visit longislandpress.com/category/food-drink

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Timothy Bolger is the Editor in Chief of the Long Island Press who’s been working to uncover unreported stories since shortly after it launched in 2003. When he’s not editing, getting hassled by The Man or fielding cold calls to the newsroom, he covers crime, general interest and political news in addition to reporting longer, sometimes investigative features. He won’t be happy until everyone is as pissed off as he is about how screwed up Lawn Guyland is.