But the hospitality world we are returning to isn’t the same one we left.
Many restaurants are still in the process of bouncing back after an excruciating year. Some estimates show about 80,000 restaurants — about 10 percent — in the United States closed permanently since March 2020.
While restaurants adjust to the breakneck speed with which customers have returned, diners may have noticed that getting into restaurants is tougher than ever. It is even harder when you are an out-of-towner and you have limited time to get into a place you’re dying to try. So what do travelers need to know about eating out while on vacation?
Labor shortages have hit restaurants, too.
Diners returned to restaurants with full force, exponentially faster than restaurants anticipated.
While Compton says she was fortunate to have most of her employees return when she reopened, other chefs are still desperate for more staff.
Even though Ripert says Le Bernardin in New York has never been so busy, he has been unable to reopen the restaurant for lunch because of the labor shortage.
“In general, the restaurant industry is booming, and that creates tremendous challenges for the entire industry because a lot of the staff, the employees — we cannot find them,” Ripert says. “When I see that American Airlines has to cancel their flights because they have no pilots, I’m like ‘Yeah, I don’t have cooks.’”
To accommodate more outdoor diners, Brandon Jew built a neon green parklet in front of his restaurant Mister Jiu’s in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Now, he doesn’t have enough employees to staff the extra tables. He has also had to keep Moongate Lounge, the bar he opened upstairs pre-pandemic, closed for the same reason.
With restaurants operating at reduced capacity or shorter hours, diners are competing for fewer tables, making reservations and walk-in spots harder to come by.
Think about making reservations beyond fancy dinners.
If you have specific places you would like to visit, particularly if they are well-known, make reservations well in advance of your trip. “Even for casual places,” Ripert says. “It’s very, very difficult to get tables everywhere.”
When Le Bernardin opened reservations for August, historically its slowest month, Ripert says four staff members had to man the phones as calls barraged the lines. Customers waited 30 minutes to get through to secure a reservation.
Should a table at the restaurants on your wish list remain unattainable, Compton recommends trying lesser-known mom-and-pop restaurants.
“Go to some of those off-the-beaten-path restaurants, the restaurants that you don’t know about,” she says. “There are those names that definitely stick out when people come here … but we have a lot of those small restaurants that are independently owned, most of them Black-owned, and a lot of people don’t know them except the locals.”
To find those places, talk to locals throughout your trip. Ask about their favorite restaurants and bars where it’s easier to get a seat.
This goes beyond restaurants, too. You’ll want to plan ahead for visiting places like bars, breweries and wineries. For example, right now in Napa Valley, most tastings are available only by appointment.
“A little advanced planning goes a long way,” says Linsey Gallagher, chief executive of Visit Napa Valley, who also suggests visiting during the week, when there are fewer tourists in town.
Lastly, don’t forget it’s good form to cancel your reservations if you decide you don’t want them anymore.
Everything is different this summer, from tipping to menus.
Beyond the competitive reservation situation, travelers will notice other differences in their dining this summer. Many restaurants have shifted their operations to accommodate to staffing and supply chain issues.
At the height of pandemic shutdowns and restrictions, the Snug in San Francisco couldn’t keep the same staff volume as it shifted to surviving on takeout business. As the city has reopened, the bar and restaurant has pivoted to QR-code-accessed menus and phone-app ordering. It has no plans of bringing back the old style of service. Espita in D.C., among many others across the country, is doing the same.
To prepare for such shifts, travelers should make sure their smartphones are charged before heading out to bars and restaurants in case they need it to see a menu, order food or pay for the meal.
Diners may notice shorter menus at restaurants as well. At Mister Jiu’s, the menu is now two-thirds of its pre-pandemic length. Compton has done the same, but not just to accommodate for a smaller kitchen crew.
“Having a smaller menu also means having more menu additions to help the farmers out,” Compton says. “Farmers had a really tough time [during the pandemic].” Having fewer et menu items has allowed Compton to let her cooks be more creative with daily offerings while supporting local farms by buying whatever is available — particularly as the restaurant industry deals with supply chain issues.
“They’re rethinking their models of how to be more efficient, not just staffing, but also there’s a huge break in the supply chain,” Compton says. “Today I had my purveyor call me up like, ‘Listen, I don’t have tuna today.’ He says there’s so many storms and the weather is so bad that the fishermen can’t go out.”
Some restaurants, such as Mister Jiu’s, are getting rid of tipping and charging an automatic service fee to bring more equity to the staff.
The Snug also got rid of tipping in favor of a 20 percent fair wage charge instead. “Tipping is an archaic system,” says Jacob Racusin, a co-owner of the Snug. “I think it’s bad, and it’s bad for everybody. ... This takes the guesswork out of how much are you going to make this month.”
And while the pandemic continues to ease, but isn’t actually over, diners can expect to encounter a variety of coronavirus precautions from restaurant to restaurant.
At Itamae and B-Side By Itamae in Miami, sister-and-brother chefs and owners Nando Chang and Valerie Chang have been frustrated by customer pushback when it comes to covid rules. While some staff members remain unvaccinated and threat of the delta variant looms, they have decided to keep the staff mask mandate to protect everyone at the restaurants, as well as their families at home.
It’s not an easy decision to uphold; Valerie, who says she has gotten covid-19 twice (and once post-vaccination) has to strain her throat screaming orders to staff to combat the mask and loud music at the restaurant. The Miami heat doesn’t help either. But the Changs say they believe it is for the best, and they ask that diners understand this is something many restaurants are dealing with regularly. Their main advice: Be adaptable and empathetic.
“You have to enjoy the world as it is right now,” Nando says. “Nothing is the same as it was a year ago. But it’s going to get back there.”