Our weird restaurant future

July 17, 2020

It’s Friday, 7:30 p.m., the time when the entire neighborhood used to converge on the corner of 13th and Maple. The wait was long back then (“back then,” you catch yourself saying all the time, the constant comparison now as tedious as it is tragic), but that was the point of the no-reservations policy—to fashion the sidewalk into a cocktail-soaked advertisement for both the restaurant and the neighborhood.

But tonight, as you pull up, you see that it’s quiet out front. You wait in your car, just in case any human clusters form, and at 7:47 p.m., a text arrives saying your table is ready.

The hostess welcomes you and takes your temperature. (No matter how many times you’ve done it, you still feel like an extra in a sci-fi movie.) You pass by the bar—once crowded elbow-to-elbow, now reserved exclusively as a staging area for delivery and takeout. The long communal tables where you used to meet your neighbors have been replaced by four-tops preloaded with single-use forks and knives, plates and glasses, salt and pepper.

A young man with a bottle of hydrogen peroxide circles the room, waiting for surfaces to cleanse; his presence puts you at ease and makes you tense in equal measure. When a server coughs into her arm, the pulse of the entire room quickens.