Leftovers: What to expect when you mask up and dine out

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To keep us informed, there has been an abundance of good news coverage about restaurants working hard to adjust, reinvent themselves, claw for financial survival, and do their best for loyal diners.

The personal coverage, meanwhile, has been literal – as in wearing masks, gloves, and plastic facial shields. While the last one seemed a bit surreal, no one can be too cautious when it comes to my takeout sushi.

We’ve read about the hardships of mask-wearing servers trying to stay upbeat when patrons can’t understand the daily specials. About the difficulty of providing excellent service with tables spread so far apart and about extra steps to offer the most basic amenities. For those who haven’t been out, condiments such as salt and pepper aren’t on the tables anymore, provided only upon request. 

Like most things impacted by pandemic living (which is everything) we can no longer expect the expected at our favorite restaurants. In fact, we should be delighted if they’re still in existence, much less open for business. The operational obstacles continue to be Herculean and I’ve got nothing but respect for all of you in the trenches. 

Under the best of circumstances, it’s risky business, but also gratifying, great fun, and from a bartender/server perspective, very lucrative. But that is the best of circumstances, and even pre-pandemic, things weren’t always the best. 

So where do those of us who crave the dining experience go from here? We’re eight months into the pandemic, Maine winter is on the way, and there’s no real end in sight. We’re sick of our living-room walls and even self-professed top chefs are bored with their own cooking. Others have loaded up on junk food or become besties with the Uber Eats driver. 

For many, the time has come to mask up and go out. But be prepared for the following changes, all implemented for optimum safety and compliance.

Many restaurants have done away with menus in favor of asking patrons to scan a QR code by taking a picture of it on their phone. It’s a touchless ordering option that can save payroll, or simply eliminate the paper. But something becomes lost when having to scroll through menu descriptions instead of having them all laid out in front of me. Maybe I’m nuts, but I like to look at the design, the descriptions, the ingredients, the fine print, the chef’s name, and all the things that make a well-crafted menu part of the overall experience. Of course, I also prefer hardcover books to e-readers, so go figure. 

A sidewalk menu board explains the rules outside a restaurant in Boston’s North End.

Menus items have been reduced to accommodate food cost efficiency and fewer people per meal period. Favorite happy hours may no longer offer oyster specials or have a $5 menu. And the bartender will certainly not allow your posse of usual suspects to crowd around a few barstools. 

Days and hours of operation have been adjusted to what makes sense for the restaurant. Lunch or brunch may have been eliminated altogether; if you thought there were slim pickings on Sundays and Mondays before, think again. 

Anticipate increased pricing to offset rising costs up and down distributor chains. Packaging plants closing due to an outbreak, or the inability to obtain materials (think of the aluminum can shortage and delicious Sea Dog Sunfish) directly affect supply and demand. We all know where that ends up. 

Where you once had cloth napkins at your place setting, you may now receive your utensils rolled-up in paper. Water glasses may be covered with plastic wrap and you may not be able to sit by the empty table in the window because it’s too close to another table. The restroom may only allow one patron at a time, even if there’s more than one toilet. You might be told just one person from your party can approach the host stand. 

Your server may seem frazzled, but you’re probably unaware of how much additional effort is involved in providing a good experience with so many behind-the-scenes requirements. Everything from wiping down a table with extra solution, to running out back for a small ramekin of steak sauce becomes a new challenge. 

The list goes on. My best advice is to call ahead, ask all the questions, and make a reservation, which has become more necessary than ever. 

Restaurants today are like a giant see-saw of trust, where both sides of the table must do their part for a healthy balance. That’s not much different than back in the day, except the rules on the playground have changed. 

So play by the rules, and as always, enjoy your meal. 

Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at [email protected].

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