He hadn’t visited a restaurant since March 15, a few days before the Atlanta mayor ordered all dining rooms closed. On April 27, Georgia became the second state in the United States, after Alaska, to allow restaurants to reopen since the start of the pandemic. Chops, a 31-year-old restaurant that is a temple to spending accounts in the Buckhead neighborhood, was one of the first to start their business again.
My waiter, Roberto Velasco, looked as happy to be working as I was to be sitting in a restaurant. At least, it seemed. It was difficult to tell with the mask.
For many people, the idea of eating in a restaurant still seems scary. For me it was. I sat at a table in the back and wondered if the coronavirus would be floating in the air conditioner or if one of the diners who ordered a cabernet at a table three meters away would be a carrier. As for the valet service, are you kidding me?
However, Velasco’s face mask, along with his constant visits to a fairly visible bottle of hand sanitizer, calmed my anxiety. When the red medium-rib-eye and the asparagus dish arrived, I was as fascinated as Dorothy in a poppy field.
Restaurants are beginning to open intermittently in the United States, guided by a hodgepodge of federal, state, and local laws and recommendations that seem to change daily. Restaurant owners must establish their own practices and devise ways to reduce health risk that provide security for some customers without alienating others.
Against this background, it is difficult to know what the new face of American hospitality will be like, but it is likely that he will wear a mask.
The mask is the most widely used, and perhaps divisive, tool in an arsenal of protective measures, such as disposable menus and plastic dividers that restaurants are incorporating into an emerging culture of hospitality in the midst of a pandemic.
The mask has become part of the standard equipment from the highest levels of gastronomy to the lowest. Burger King executives are reviewing mask designs that could become part of the standard uniform. At The Inn at Little Washington, a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Rappahannock County, Virginia, chef Patrick O’Connell has ordered the creation of personalized face masks with designs of the smiles of Marilyn Monroe and George Washington, anticipating the reopening on May 29.
“It is clear that people need to go out and do not want to enter an environment that increases their anxiety,” he said. “They want something that dissipates the moment we are experiencing.”
(O’Connell will go even further: To help counter the arid appearance of a half-seat restaurant, as requested by the state to comply with social distancing, he will seat mannequins dressed in 1940s outfits on empty chairs. “I’ve always liked mannequins,” he said.)
For some diners, seeing that staff wear masks is a comfort. For others, these cause anxiety, he said. If diners ask to be served by a waiter without a mask and someone is available, the restaurant will agree.
“We invite all of our customers to have fun however they like,” said O’Connell. “Our main objective, always, is to be healers. We have created a sanctuary, a comforting place, and for some people a mask is a symbol of that, but for others it is not. ”
Masks can be a political hot spot. On Mother’s Day, hundreds of unmasked people gathered at the C&C Breakfast & Korean Kitchen in Castle Rock, Colorado, south of Denver, for a protest party organized by the owners, who said the state government was It has surpassed itself by limiting restaurants to take-out and home services, and by requiring workers to wear face masks. The state health department closed the restaurant the next day.
Masks are recommended in Texas, but are not mandatory, although some local laws are stricter. The Hillstone Restaurant Group, which manages 45 restaurants in various states, decided that its Texas employees would not wear face masks, in part because the face accessory does not match the style of the service. An employee filed a lawsuit; a judge issued a temporary restraining order and his final decision is awaited. That, and the increasing pressure on social media, led to a change in policies.
“Diners and staff members who want to wear a mask are free to do so,” a statement released by the company last week on its website read. “Other diners and staff members may choose not to wear masks based on their personal preferences and we ask that everyone respect those decisions.”
Rick Davis, executive director of the accounting firm Elliott Davis, would prefer that his waiters not wear facemasks. Davis got the first reservation at Soby’s New South Cuisine, in Greensville, South Carolina, when it reopened on May 11. I couldn’t wait to eat an order of house fried green tomatoes. But he would have liked to see the face of the person who attended him.
“Personally, I would have felt good if they hadn’t worn masks,” he said. “I understand why they did it, but much of the dining experience in restaurants is warmth, which is sometimes more important than food. It’s hard to deny the fact that seeing the waiter’s face is part of that. ”
Davis did not wear a mask in the restaurant, and neither did any of my fellow diners at the Chops Steakhouse.
However, the masks are part of what made Tonia Wilson feel comfortable when she sat down at Goldbergs Fine Foods in Atlanta on Thursday of last week to eat a rehash order of potato-cured meat.
Wilson was wearing a face mask as he entered and was glad that Ola Garcia, his waitress, was also wearing one. Both had their temperature checked upon arrival, Garcia before starting his shift and Wilson at the door of the establishment.
“Not like anywhere, and I’m not going to other places that have opened,” said Wilson. “But I have visited this place enough times and I see how they do the cleaning, wear gloves and a mask, and so I know that I am safe.”
Restaurants are experimenting with various ways to keep diners and employees safe, and they say disinfection is taken seriously. An Ohio breakfast spot hung transparent, washable plastic shower curtains between tables. An Atlanta restaurant asks their waiters to put on different colored gloves every time they head to a table, to assure diners that the gloves are clean.
For other diners, not all the masked waiters or Plexiglass dividers in the world could convince them to go to a restaurant yet.
“It is not a matter of lack of confidence in them, but in the idiots who visit the place,” said Dale Benerofe, an Atlanta health worker who used to eat out two or three times a week. “I want restaurants to open. I really do, but not now. It is too stressful. ”
Even Danny Meyer, who wrote a book on hospitality, said in a recent interview that he had no interest in reopening its fine dining restaurants if the capacity were reduced so much that it was unprofitable and the risk of contracting the virus was so high that taking it temperature and masks had to be included in the service.
“What we are dealing with, all of us, is fear,” he told me last week. “I have always believed that hospitality is the antidote to fear. What we are really very, very good at is welcoming people and making them feel good around a table. But that tool has been taken from our hands. “
Some say that visible signs of hygiene, including face masks, will simply become the new hospitality brand, just like health codes, licensing requirements, or advances in technology like online reservations are part of the operation.
“Now, hospitality means you will have to prove these things,” says Alex Susskind, a professor at Cornell University and director of his food and beverage institute.
All of this can be puzzling for restaurant owners, as they try to balance safety with customer expectations.
Craig Richards is the chef at Lyla Lila, a southern European gastronomy restaurant that became an instant hit when it opened in Atlanta in December. He’s been polling his customers on Facebook and exchanging notes with other chefs who, like him, hope to reopen in the coming weeks.
“I have said from the beginning that we want our restaurant to be a respite from daily life, but how does that look now?” He said. “I want them to forget everything that’s going on, and not be surrounded by all these reminders.”
The most obvious reminder, at least for now, is the mask. Restaurant owners are pondering whether they should be surgical paper – which is relatively abundant, inexpensive, and can be changed with each new group of diners – or a clear plastic shield worn as a necklace. Some are considering adding the restaurant’s logo or looking for more stylized options, such as the soft organic cotton masks made by designer Natalie Chanin in Alabama.
Every little touch of hospitality is an opportunity to turn the grim return-to-business drive into an opportunity to be creative, says Ashley Christensen, who sells dinner kits and takeaways as she ponders how and when to reopen her popular restaurants in Raleigh. , North Carolina.
“When you make the decision that there is still room to be creative in this mode,” he said, “it feels more exciting and joyful and it’s not just about the loss.”
Kim Severson is a correspondent based in the southern United States that covers the country’s food culture and contributes to NYT Cooking. He has written four books and was part of the team that won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2018 for reporting on sexual harassment in the workplace. @kimseverson • Facebook