I used to eat at restaurants at least twice a week before the Pandemic. Partly for my job as a reviewer and partly for the enjoyment. I loved gathering with my people around a shared food experience. During the week, I would try a new restaurant, and then create a blog post about the service, the ambiance, and the meal.
On the weekends, my husband and I would go out for dinner either on a date or with friends. I would take photos of my cocktails or food, and later, write about the beautiful creations from the bar or kitchen. When traveling, I would seek out the unique spots that offered top-notch local dining. It is my job, a favorite pastime, and I miss it.
The Pandemic has changed all of our lives in so many ways. Traveling is diminished or discouraged for the foreseeable future, and eating out is fraught with risks, especially if the appropriate protocols aren’t in place. While many of my friends have ordered take-out to support local venues, they are not rushing to get back to a restaurant.
As some states are getting the go-ahead to re-open, I was scared to go back out there, but I felt the urge to try. I read up on what was opening nearby and decided the time was right to dine alfresco. I made sure to be mindful of the directives from the state and health professionals, and slowly returned to outdoor dining. I visited a few restaurants recently, and I wanted to share my thoughts and experiences.
Last month I made a choice to support my local haunts in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. I wanted to feel somewhat normal again. I hate the term new normal, but as much as I looked forward to it, it has become an experience that feels strange and somewhat disconcerting. It all depends on your comfort level, and I respect everyone’s decision to do what’s best for them.
While new policies are in place, some of the protocols work better than others. I appreciate scanning the menu on my phone instead of handling one, even if it is wiped down. I am not comfortable handling a menu, even a paper menu, offered at one restaurant. I felt like it was a waste and I wondered if it had been used before. My daughter is a server this summer. At the gastropub where she works, they announce a limited menu and airdrop the cocktail list if you have a smartphone.
Trying to wear my mask whenever the server appears is difficult, especially if I am sipping a drink or taking a bite. I read that it’s just polite to mask up when waitstaff visits the table.
I asked my daughter what she thinks about this. She accepts that many don’t wear a mask when she approaches the table but feels that if you can wear your mask (if you are not eating or drinking), she appreciates the gesture. It makes her feel safer.
Indoor dining is out of my comfort zone, and I am not willing to eat inside yet. But, if you feel ready, many states are offering inside seating. I reserved and requested a table outside recently and was offered one inside with plenty of space between the tables. I didn’t hesitate to say I preferred to eat on the porch, even though the air conditioning inside felt terrific. If proper spacing and safety protocols are in place (servers wearing masks, and touchpoints wiped down between patrons) outdoor dining can be pleasant but it’s certainly different.
There is no indoor dining at my daughter’s restaurant, where I ate last week. The building is a charming historic house, but the space inside is tight. Instead, diners are seated in their own cabana outdoors, because the patio is too small for ample spacing between tables. It’s a perfect solution to help patrons feel relaxed and in their own bubble. Tables outdoors should have accommodations similar to this. I have seen partitions when space is limited. It feels safer than having too many people packed in a small area outside with no type of barrier.
To ensure that you have a table, you need to reserve one at a specific time. Gone are the days when you can show up to see if you can squeeze in. Thank goodness we don’t have to wait in the crowded foyer or grab a drink while we remain at the bar these days. Your table is waiting because reservations are required. More importantly, to make sure there is time to wipe the table and chairs down before it is reset.
Unfortunately, if you are dining outdoors, the weather is a factor now. We canceled a reservation because of tropical storm Fay. I feel bad for the establishment. They hire waitstaff and order food in the hopes of making money during this time but cannot seat you if the weather turns. They suggest you order take-out instead. If you choose an expensive spot, especially for a special occasion, you may not want to pay the same price to bring the food home. Make sure you know the cancellation policy ahead of time. Some restaurants ask for a credit card to hold your table and charge a fee if you cancel without proper notice or don’t show.
Tipping is extra essential now, so be generous if the service is attentive. I tip well because I used to work in restaurants during college, and always appreciated generous tips because I needed the money. I try to pay that forward. If you feel the service or the food is not up to par, tip accordingly. Being a server now is challenging, and these folks are willing to wear a mask to serve you. Take care of them because they are working harder in harsher conditions. Eating out was always a luxury, but if it is more expensive now, I understand, and I am willing to pay a bit more for the opportunity.
Is it worth it to take the risk to eat out now? That is up to the individual, and their choices should not be judged. I feel ready, but I also want to feel secure when I am dining out. I appreciate all the extra attention that many places are putting forth to help us have a respite during these difficult times. I wish we could go back to life as we knew it, but we can’t. We can just adjust, adapt, and move forward.