Don't Expect Restaurants to Be Normal Right Now
The restaurant business has never been more challenging. For our F&W Pro Guide to Reopening Restaurants, we've been collecting wisdom and best practices from leaders in the hospitality industry to help you navigate this unprecedented time.
The week that New York City moved into Phase 2 which allowed for outdoor dining, my husband and I cautiously made plans to have dinner with another couple at a nearby restaurant. The four of us were prepared to brave a public outing, but not quite courageous enough to ride the subway out of our own neighborhood. The last time I had been out to dinner was on March 8, one week before all the restaurants in the city were shut down, putting me out of work as a server for the foreseeable future. Then, I sat at the bar directly next to a stranger and I even talked to him. This was well before masks were much of a thing and the only precaution we took before eating was to make sure the bartender wiped down our place at the bar with a towel that looked reasonably clean. The food was fine, the drinks were adequate, it was too noisy, and it was overpriced. In other words, just a typical dinner out in New York City.
Fast forward 13 weeks and I find myself sitting under a restaurant awning on a sunny summer day with friends. It’s the first time any of us have done anything other than zip into a grocery or liquor store and we’re each hesitant to lower our facial coverings. We keep them on as we order from our masked and gloved server and when our drinks arrive, we cautiously lower them to our chins or let them hang on one ear like an oversized fabric earring. As much as I am looking forward to a sip of my frozen piña colada, once I see the smiles on our friends’ faces, the cocktail isn’t as important anymore.
I realize that more than eating out, I have missed connecting with people in non-digital formats. We raise our glasses toasting to a brighter future and this is when it becomes clear that my frozen piña colada is actually a frozen margarita. And you know what? It doesn’t matter. Just being with friends is worth it. Besides, tequila goes down just as easily as rum does, especially when someone else is serving it to me and our waiter is already working hard enough as it is.
When he returns to our table to take our food order, we dutifully pull our masks back up and tell him what we want. Just knowing that this is a meal I won’t have to prepare or clean up afterwards makes me anticipate the food even more. The sun has now been dimmed by a dangerous looking thundercloud, but our collective mood is still as bright as ever. Every other customer appears to be just as grateful for their outing as we are for ours, and even the staff seems happy, despite the masks they’re all wearing. Maybe they are just as eager to be working as we are to be eating out.
We order another round of drinks and I happily suck down my second non-piña colada. And then a rumble. And lightning. And wind. Out of nowhere, the heavens open up, releasing sheets of rain in that way that only happens during the heat of summer. Within minutes, the street is flooded and water is pouring from the awning that is whipping in the wind. Our server is rushing around to make sure everyone is okay, but there is still a sense of excitement in the air rather than frustration. Our paper napkins are wet, my back is damp, my frozen margarita has a float of rainwater on it, and the metal barrier that separates us from the sidewalk is being blown sideways. And you know what? It still doesn’t matter. Everything is okay.
The restaurant owner whisks by and I ask her how the customers who are eating in the newly created patio that is next to the bike lane are doing, knowing there is no awning for them and only some small patio umbrellas. “They’re doing just what you guys are doing,” she laughs. “Riding it out!”
It doesn’t matter for them either. After months of cooking our own food and clearing our own plates and washing our own dishes, we are all simply too grateful to complain about anything. Ten minutes minutes later, the rain disappears as quickly as it had arrived. The sun is shining again and our server has replaced our wet silverware with dry. Our food comes out and I completely forget that my wet shirt is sticking to my back.
In a few years when we think back to 2020 and the pandemic, most of us are going to remember loneliness, the loss of life, hand sanitizer, and the lack of toilet paper. Hopefully, we also will be able to recall how, over the course of months in lockdown, we learned to be grateful for things that we had long taken for granted. Maybe the bar has been lowered for eating out in a restaurant. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could hold onto these feelings of gratitude and simple joys? Maybe the best thing about going out to eat isn’t taking a photo of your cheeseburger for Instagram, but it’s the straightforward act of sharing a meal with someone you care about.
Perhaps we can remember to overlook things like a little fall of rain or an incorrect cocktail and instead just appreciate sitting in a restaurant with friends while having a kind server take care of us. It seems like a waste of energy to complain about little things when we should be acknowledging how lucky we are to be alive and afforded the luxury to eat out. Am I more easily satisfied when I go out to eat in a restaurant now? Yes, I am and I hope others are too. The bar has been lowered and that’s a good thing.