Before Anthony S. Fauci became a household name, it was when I first reviewed the exclusive Sushi Nakazawa, a branch of a four-star draw in New York that is linked to the Trump International hotel.
Since then, a pandemic has winnowed my usual field of dining companions to a handful of longtime friends. I can understand the trepidation, since the invitation has switched from “Takeout tonight?” to “How would you like to join me for dinner inside?” now that the District, Maryland and Virginia are all in or past Phase 2 of reopening the economy, meaning a percentage of restaurant dining rooms can be occupied.
To get a sense of what it feels like to eat out right now, I visited three area restaurants for a pulse check. While I was eager to order off a printed menu and eat from plates rather than cartons, I also couldn’t help but feel like a canary in a coal mine.
For as long as I've been eating in them, the Great American Restaurants, more than a dozen full-service dining rooms strong, have lived up to the promise of the Northern Virginia company's name. Service with a smile. Food that's familiar and fresh. Walking up to the entrance of the seafood-themed Coastal Flats in Tysons Corner Center is thus a bit of a surprise. A greeter with a clipboard asks to check my name off a list of reservation holders before she unclips a chain separating shopping mall from restaurant. And the host stand is blocked by rocking chairs turned toward the podium — not exactly an invitation to rest a spell before heading to your seat.
The dining room is vast, but 70 percent of the 250 or so seats are occupied by the restaurant’s recently decommissioned tall plastic menus. They stand sentinel on the table tops, blocking anyone from settling in. Paper menus, part of the new normal, alight. The server details the catch of the day, which we have him repeat. Masks stand in the way of easy communication as well as viruses.
Inside at least, Coastal Flats wants you to forget what ails you. (The list can be a long one these days.) The colorful pendant lights suggest the tails of fireworks, and the multiple murals capture relaxed beach and boating scenes. There are no windows, at least to the outside. For old time’s sake, we order the spiky seafood fritters and the fish special. My glasses fog up as I place my order. As soon as the waiter leaves, I take off my mask. Now it feels normal.
Well, at least until my gaze settles on the open kitchen, animated by masked cooks who resemble surgeons in an operating theater. A manager drops by with our wine, and I ask him how it feels to be back in action. He tells me he’s glad to see less of the kitchen’s food exit in takeout boxes but dismayed at having to tell his staff to basically unlearn so many of the family-run group’s fine points. “It’s not normal for us.” Company policy now asks managers and others to step back, “as if startled,” when customers broach their personal space and to remind customers to wear their masks if they move about the dining room, says CEO Jon Norton.
For the first three months of the pandemic, Coastal Flats operated as a community kitchen, serving 100,000 free meals to food shelters, first responders and staff. (The company has been able to rehire 1,200 of its original 1,700 employees.) The house-baked rolls are no longer free, but there’s no complaining when Norton says his restaurants are charging a dollar for four and the buck is going toward food security.
“Are you done with your menu?” the manager asks. I nod, and he crumples the list in his hand, so no other diner comes in contact with it.
Hard to believe, but it wasn’t until five years ago that the company relented and introduced takeout. Before, says Norton, the rationale was “our food is high-maintenance and doesn’t travel well.”
I pay my bill with a credit card that everyone touches as if it’s a butterfly wing, and I’m comforted to know the company policy is to wipe down the restaurant’s high-touch surfaces every 30 minutes. “We have a timer,” the manager says reassuringly. (Waiters are instructed to wash their hands each time they handle a credit card.)
As we get up to leave, my significant other points out a problem. “You have a bean on your tooth,” he says. Our water glasses have been whisked away, so I reach for the next best solution and put on my mask. Score one for dignity in dire times.
Ambar on Capitol Hill — lighter, bigger and oh so cautious after emerging from a $3 million renovation — is the poster child for what a restaurant should feel like in the age of coronavirus.
Cleaning supplies are prominently displayed near the entrance. A hand-washing station beckons near the bar. All the wood tables are bare. Only after they sit down are diners given glasses and silverware, bundled into cloth napkins. There are newly purchased fans for better ventilation on the rooftop patio and at least two temperature checks per shift for employees. “Please scan QR codes for contactless menu and payment options,” reads a single sheet of paper that will be tossed after you scan it. When they aren’t taking orders or ferrying food, staff members are wiping down chairs and tables with disinfectant.
Bon appetit? If my forays back to restaurants have taught me anything, it’s that diners are going to have to recalibrate their notion of hospitality. Safe is the new “let us take care of you tonight.” Also, the industry is getting used to customers seeing how the sausage is made. “People have to learn how tough the business is,” says owner Ivan Iricanin, who counts a second Ambar in Arlington. “It’s hard to make money.”
Oh, the food. Ambar continues to offer all-you-can-graze Balkan dishes for $25 at lunch and $35 at dinner. (For $20 more, you get unlimited drinks.) Iricanin says he was able to offer the same prices as before by halving the number of dishes Ambar featured, allowing him to trim his kitchen staff by 35 percent. Afraid to share plates? Ambar now divides much of the food for you and sends out extra spoons.
Safe and sane. It’s a good recipe.
A few things have changed since my last meal at Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant in Rockville. Take the foyer, dressed with a display case of four kinds of injera crisps. Consider the greeting, whereby the owner disinfects my window table before I sit down, asks me to extend my hands for a spritz and, in a last bit of accommodation, cleans my plastic menu before I touch it.
It’s the second day after the restaurant reopened for in-house dining, and owner Mehari Kebede seems thrilled whenever anyone comes through the door, even if it’s only a food courier. “Only three people yesterday, the whole day,” he says. “People aren’t free, yet, of fear.”
Bemasked and begloved, the host seems determined to put customers at ease, or at least underscore his concern for their well-being. Multiple posters instruct guests that no more than five can gather per table, and to wear masks if they excuse themselves to get up. When I pass Kebede near the bar on my way to the restroom, he offers wide berth.
Sheba has changed hands since my last visit eight years ago. So I ask for some basics, a vegetarian sampler and doro wat, the chicken-and-egg stew considered to be Ethiopia’s national dish. The platter of sunset-colored food shows up with the expected rolls of injera and a surprise: a fork. Native Ethiopians and fans of the cuisine know to tear a piece of bread from a fold and use it to scoop up the salads and stews.
Is the fork a sign of the pandemic? I’m both relieved and disappointed when Kebede tells me some customers are more comfortable eating with utensils than their fingers. Relieved because I’ve only ever used injera to eat Ethiopian cooking. Sad because the owner didn’t immediately peg me as a guy who loves his native cuisine and wouldn’t dream of using anything but my well-washed hand to ferry it from plate to lips. Kebede’s eyes tell me he’s smiling beneath his mask when he sees me put my fork to the side.
The previous owner, Tsiona Bellete, is gone but not forgotten. Those are her injera crisps filling the display case. I scoop up four cartons, all “spicy” with birds’ eye chiles, for two reasons: Cheetos, Fritos and Doritos have nothing on flash-fried injera, and restaurants need all the sales they can ring up.
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