What dining out will look like in a post-shutdown era is one of the biggest unanswered questions for New York City. Before restaurants start to reopen later in the summer, Gov. Andrew Cuomo will have to issue detailed guidance aimed at protecting both employees and patrons from infection, something he hasn’t done yet.
So far, 29 states have opened for some kind of dine-in service. Soon, California will join that group; Gov. Gavin Newsom published a long set of guidelines on Tuesday detailing how sit-down dining might look. That playbook is worth a closer look as restaurants in Los Angeles and San Francisco — many of them in high-rent, densely packed urban areas, and with an occasional proclivity for all things fancy — often mirror the New York dining experience.
Some of those guidelines are predictable and adhere to draft guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, including closing buffets and condiment bars — a tough break for hot pot spots. Other aspects of the reopening program, like keeping bar areas off limits, screening patrons, and advising customers to wear masks whenever they’re not eating or drinking, paint a starker new normal. Still other criteria are somewhat unique, such as instituting “directional hallways” and possibly ending tableside service.
The California criteria are worth reading in full, but in the meantime, here are seven takeaways for New Yorkers.
The pomp of fine dining service could vanish, as will tableside guac
The many luxurious — I might say burdensome — interactions between fine dining waiters and patrons will start to disappear inasmuch as every encounter carries the chance of transmitting a deadly disease. Per the California guidelines, pre-setting tables will go away (i.e. no more decorative plates to be cleared the moment you sit down). The document also suggests employees pre-roll utensils in napkins for delivery, instead of painstakingly arranging steak knives and salad forks after every course.
Finally, the guidelines advise discontinuing “tableside food preparation,” a booming trend over the past few years at throwback venues like Le Coucou, the Grill, and TAK Room. So say goodbye to those tableside Caesars. California even dared to single out the holy ritual of tableside guac in its recommendations.
Ordering ahead may become more commonplace
Once upon a time, while hungover and watching VH1 on someone else’s couch in my early 20s, I learned that Sean “Diddy” Combs, would send folks to restaurants to order his meal, so that by the time he arrived and sat down at his table the food would be ready. I’ve spent way too much time thinking about that purported scenario in the decades since, musing upon how unpleasant it must be to reducing the conviviality of dining out to a more transactional experience. As it turns out, that practice might become increasingly common, as California — in accordance with CDC guidelines — suggests “allowing dine-in customers to order ahead of time to limit the amount of time spent in the establishment.”
No more communal tables
The California guidelines recommend limiting “the number of patrons at a single table to a household unit” or to “patrons who have asked to be seated together.” By that logic, there won’t any more communal tables, which is perhaps an overly obvious point at this stage in the game. But given the ignominies that New Yorkers have undergone over the past 15 years, with high real estate prices dictating maximum profit per square nanometer, and with patrons sitting directly opposite strangers in odd configurations (three-by-three, Tetris-style), let’s call this one a minor win.
However, there’s a bit of language at the end of the seating guideline, which suggests the powerful lobbying group for brunch hosts and hostesses remains as powerful as ever: “All members of the party must be present before seating.”
There will be more logic to how you walk through a restaurant
Sometimes walking through a restaurant recalls floating down a stream on an inner-tube; everything moves elegantly in the right direction. And sometimes restaurants feel like highways without lanes, with diners, drinkers, and waiters sometimes chaotically walking in eight different directions, and often into each other. The California rules seek to change this, since minimizing contact is key to a COVID-19 world. The guidelines advise establishing “directional hallways and passageways for foot traffic, if possible, to eliminate employees from passing by one another.”
Dishwashing will be like nuclear waste disposal
All restaurant workers deserve hazard pay, a fact that’s all the more true of dishwashers, who’ll soon spend the bulk of their evenings in close proximity with potentially infectious waste. California, accordingly, has put together pretty strict requirements for this vulnerable class of workers, who remain among the lowest paid in the kitchen:
Dishwashers should use equipment to protect the eyes, nose, and mouth from contaminant splash using a combination of face coverings, protective glasses, and/or face shields. Dishwashers must be provided impermeable aprons and change frequently. Reusable protective equipment such as shields and glasses should be properly disinfected between uses.
You’ll have to box that up yourself
Customers boxing up their own takeout has been a decade-plus practice at many casual restaurants. Soon, it might be the norm everywhere, even at temples of fine dining. Here’s the California guideline: “Takeout containers must be filled by customers and available only upon request.” At the very least, you’ll no longer feel guilty about asking the waiter to get all those poultry pan drippings at the bottom of the plate into your compostable box.