At one point during dinner — I’m pretty sure I was well into my second drink — my wife, Carrie, and I started to relax into the meal and into our conversation, oblivious for a few sacred moments about the risks involved with eating inside a restaurant again. We were occupying an elevated two-top at the bar at Nostos, a tranquil space in Vienna with whitewashed walls that make you think of Santorini travel posters, the Aegean Sea and how you won’t be visiting Greece anytime soon.
But because it’s summer, we were discussing how we want to spend our vacation during a pandemic. Maybe rent a small camper, shove the dogs inside and find a remote spot in the mountains or near the water, where the cell coverage is nonexistent but the scenery breathtaking? Some locale, we agreed, where we could decompress together and take a long walk together, to remind ourselves that the state of our union needs maintenance and improvements, too, to live up to the promises we made to each other all those years ago. In the middle of our discussion, Carrie stopped and looked at me with eyes so full of affection that I almost turned away, as if I were staring into a brilliant sun.
“If I have to spend a pandemic cooped up with someone, I’m glad it’s you,” Carrie said. She smiled. I smiled. We laughed. We reached out to hold hands across the table.
This, I was reminded, is what restaurants can do. They can strip away the distractions. They can telescope your attention to the people and matters of the heart that get ignored in the crush of everyday events. They can create intimate spaces — with music, with decor, with color, with plateware, with professionals attending to your wants — so that friends and loved ones can reconnect over a meal. Or celebrate. Or just unwind in a way that’s impossible at home, where you’re responsible for every element of dinner, from prep to clean up, not to mention the monitoring of any young ones who occupy the same space.
I didn’t really expect to lose touch with my inhibitions when stepping into a dining room for the first time since March, when they were closed to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. I mean, my dread was reinforced the minute I entered Nostos. The host, outfitted in a breezy print jumpsuit, sported a mask over her face, looking like someone who moves between the runway and the operating room. Diners were afforded space — six glorious feet of space, or more, between tables — in an industry that strives to monetize every square inch within a restaurant’s walls, often to the discomfort of diners. The menus were paper and disposable. The waiter spoke through his own mask, reassuring us that we didn’t have to do the same, as if our safety were more important than his.
Before my visit to Nostos, I actually felt afraid to eat inside a restaurant. I had desperately wanted to eat inside a restaurant — to dig into food that I could never prepare myself, to revel in the company of friends around a table, to see the inside of some place besides my own stupid house — but so many stories, studies and statistics were rattling around my head, all but screaming that now is not the time. There was the study about diners at a Guangzhou, China, restaurant who came down with covid-19; scientists suspect air conditioning played a role, though they have affixed numerous caveats to that claim, including poor ventilation. And what’s one to do with the ongoing politicization over masks? Despite clear evidence of its effectiveness, wearing a mask, to many, has become another sign of government overreach or, perhaps more to the point for a certain species of American male, a form of emasculation.
Then there are rolling tallies of deaths and cases. The stories of infection spikes as states reopen their economies and relax restrictions. And, of course, the basic fact that we have no vaccine. This feels like a no-win scenario for restaurants. You close dining rooms, you hurt people economically, especially those not suited for takeout and delivery. You open dining rooms, you risk hurting people physically. I feel for the restaurant workers and owners who need the revenue to survive. I fear for the restaurant workers and owners who need the revenue to survive.
If you talk to restaurateurs, general managers or chefs for any length of time, you’re sure to hear one phrase eventually: “We’re operating in uncharted territory here.” They’re talking about operating a business when government guidance can vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, when some guidance is mandatory while others are merely recommendations, best practices or even “considerations.” Owners are given plenty of latitude to create a safe space for dining, which fills them and their customers with angst.
“Everybody wants to do what’s right,” Marjorie Meek-Bradley, the chef at St. Anselm, told me recently. “They just don’t always know what’s the right thing to do.”
The host with the handheld reservation pad will tell you exactly what’s expected of you before you even enter St. Anselm, the grill-centric establishment in the Union Market neighborhood. You must wear a mask inside and keep it on until after you order, and then you can remove it to enjoy your drinks and dinner. The house rules conform nicely to the D.C. government’s guidance, and I was genuinely grateful for this lecture. Maybe after the 100th recitation, I’ll be as tired of it as the tableside small-plate tutorial back in the day — “the chef recommends that you order two to three plates per person, and a fourth one for the gods to thank them for the chef’s awesome talent” — but right now, it feels like the kind of PSA we all need.
Our waiter adopted a cautious approach with us at St. Anselm compared to the more cavalier server at Nostos. (I later learned that Virginia allows customers to remove masks as soon as they sit at their table, which strikes me a convenience for diners that puts servers unnecessarily in harm’s way.) The waiter at St. Anselm, wearing mask and gloves, took our order from a safe distance. He also didn’t make as many return visits to check on our table, a fundamental shift in front-of-the-house hospitality that diners will have to learn to accept if they venture back into restaurants. When the virus’s main transmission route is person-to-person contact, you may have to wait a few minutes longer for that second round of drinks in the name of public safety.
Last month, when my wife and I dined on the patio at Lauriol Plaza — well, actually, the parking lot out back, which had been transformed into a patio — I was reminded of the role diners play in this new era. When our masked server approached our two-top, she asked for our order. Our entire order, I soon realized, drinks, appetizers, entrees, everything. The look on her face when she realized we had decided only on drinks said it all: Don’t you realize that every touch of a table, repeated many times throughout an evening, just increases my risks? I can’t emphasize this enough: Be a good human and order everything at once.
Recently on the “The Dave Chang Show” podcast, former Noma chef Dan Giusti talked about how there are more important things to advocate for than saving restaurants. Giusti has a point. Our food system has serious problems that require public attention and dollars.
Yet this is not a zero-sum game. We can advocate for restaurants and a better food system. We are social animals, and we need places to gather. Bars and restaurants have been those places. Have we fetishized them in recent years? Yeah, sure. Perhaps we’ve supported only those with the right ethos, the right sourcing, the right farm-to-table philosophy? Perhaps we’ve followed the chefs and restaurants with the most cutting-edge techniques, the most stars and the coolest ingredient combinations, eager to be among the first to brag about our experiences? Some of the principles guiding our behavior are valid and important. Some are just vanity.
The thing is, now that restaurants are opening back up, I think we better understand our true relationship with them. We connect more to their original purpose. The word “restaurant” has its roots in the French word “restaurer,” which means to “restore or refresh.” As I’ve sat in dining rooms again, I’ve remembered just that: Restaurants restore our bodies with food, but they also provide a space for us to gain perspective on our day. They allow us to separate from the usual spaces and see things from a different point of view. They give us license to eat too much, drink too much and, somewhere along the way, reconnect with the better angels of our nature.
We just need to make sure our better angels wear a mask, keep their distance and tip our servers well.
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