Dining out has changed in the era of the virus

Texas is in the process of reopening for business, and that includes bars and restaurants. Most eateries have either been closed for the past couple of months or restricted to curbside takeout service. But as diners venture out for their first restaurant experience in many weeks, they’re discovering that the old practices are no longer in place. NBC News talked to some of the wait staff at Coltivare, a popular Italian restaurant in Houston, about some of the changes that have been made. They also interviewed one couple who went to dinner there, Nisha Oza and her husband, Ted Mellen, about how the experience differed from the pre-virus era.

After making a phone reservation — prior to the pandemic, Coltivare was well-known for refusing to take them — Oza and Mellen were instructed to wait in their car when they arrived. A restaurant staff member texted them when their table was ready, so they could go straight there and avoid bumping into other customers.

Once seated, a waiter in a cloth mask and plastic gloves arrived and explained that “things are going to be a little bit different.” The waiter would be taking the entire order — drinks, appetizers, dinner — all at once, to avoid additional interactions. After eating, customers were asked to set any empty plates onto a cart next to their table, so workers wouldn’t have to lean over them to grab dirty dishes.

In addition to those safety protocols, when any diner needs to use the restroom they have to notify a member of the wait staff. That person then accompanies them to the restrooms and checks first to make sure the restroom is unoccupied and is freshly sanitized. Only then is the customer allowed to go in and attend to their business. It sounds a bit like being back in grade school, doesn’t it?

Occupancy indoors is limited to 25% of previous levels with tables spaced further apart. (Personally, I wouldn’t have minded that change even if we weren’t experiencing a pandemic.) To get around that restriction, many restaurants, including Coltivare, are moving many tables outdoors. Unfortunately, that’s still going to cut way down on traffic for them any time that the weather gets unpleasant.

Salt and pepper shakers are a thing of the past, as are sugar dispensers and individual bottles of ketchup, mustard, and other condiments. It would be far too time-consuming and expensive to disinfect all of those containers in between every meal. Now there will be a boom in sales of individual paper or foil packets of all those products. Freshly washed silverware is being delivered in plastic ziplock bags so the wait staff’s hands don’t touch them prior to use.

And of course, there are the facemasks. Texas doesn’t require a facemask for customers, but they are encouraged. Obviously you can’t wear one while eating or drinking, but the rest of the time most of us will wind up wearing them from the time we arrive at a restaurant until we’re back in our cars. The chefs, wait staff, busboys, greeters and the rest of the employees will be wearing them pretty much constantly, along with some form of protective gloves.

So is this the “new normal” when it comes to dining out? And more to the point, is this a permanent change? When are we supposed to feel comfortable enough that the virus is “gone” to go back to the old way of doing things? I’m starting to wonder if we’re ever going to reach that point. For all I know, the old social order is disappearing before our eyes. Shaking hands has been replaced with polite, shallow bowing at the waist. (We’re all suddenly turning Japanese. Cue the Vapors.) Instead of looking forward to receiving a package in the mail, many of us end up staring suspiciously at the parcel and wondering how many people handled it in the past three days.

When the restaurants reopen in my state I’m honestly not sure that I’ll go back to visiting them. Our entire social order has begun to mutate as much as the virus has. And while all of this may be necessary, that doesn’t mean we’re all going to enjoy it.

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David Strom 6:41 PM on January 26, 2023