Welcome to Dining Dilemmas, an OpenTable column that aims to address the thornier sides of dining out. What’s with surcharges? How do we eat with a mask on? Are straws totally taboo? Check back for answers to these questions and more about the way we eat now.
Needless to say, it’s been a rough few months. But particularly so for restaurants, who have been forced to navigate everything from layoffs and severe financial insecurity to figuring out how to create entirely new offerings from outdoor service and takeout to grocery-style setups. Many have been denied loans or rent reductions, had to close entirely, or dealt with coronavirus scares. Through it all, it has been hard for restaurants to find guidance, and each day brings a new set of rules and regulations.
But there is still plenty of pleasure to find in dining out. Restaurants are excited to welcome diners in, even if norms have slightly changed. Now, wearing a mask is a requisite and getting a temperature check before entering a restaurant could happen. To prepare for what to expect, follow the new best practices for dining out below — compiled from expert restaurateur advice — and get ready for a joyful experience.
Make a reservation.
If restaurants are taking reservations, make one, recommends Osteria Savio Volpe’s operations manager Kaitlin Legge. They can help you avoid having to cluster while waiting for a table, she says, as well as allow restaurants to contact trace and properly prepare. The Vault partner Ryan Cole agrees, adding that knowing who’s coming ensures that your table is sanitized before you reach it. Reservations also allow restaurants to order the right amount of food and make sure enough staff is on hand, Modern Steak owner Stephen Deere says. Of course, OpenTable has always been a fan of people making reservations, but doing so now promotes safe dining along with convenience.
On the flip side, it’s more important than ever to cancel a reservation if your plans have changed. No-shows — when diners don’t show up for a reservation — have increased since restaurants started reopening during the pandemic. That’s especially damaging to restaurants, who could have rebooked the table and not lost that profit through an empty table during a time when profits are already dangerously low.
Wear a mask.
Servers and other workers are risking their health to serve diners, and there’s a lot diners can do to promote their safety. The most important is wearing a mask at all times other than when you’re eating or alone at your table. “Anything we can do to protect our team while at work is important to us, and that includes reminding customers to wear a mask,” Carte Blanche owner Brandon Ross says. You can obviously take off your mask while eating and talking with your table, but be sure to pull it back up when servers and bussers approach your table or you’re headed to the bathroom — “a sign of mutual respect for the service we are providing and a concern for the safety of the people serving the guests,” Nicole Aquilini of The Exchange says.
Use hand sanitizer.
Bring your own just in case, though many restaurants have it available as a way to make sure “everyone feels comfortable coming into our spaces knowing we are taking every precaution we can,” Aquilini explains. Osteria Savio Volpe in Vancouver asks that diners use the restaurant-provided hand sanitizer when they enter and before they use the restrooms, “to ensure that they are helping us to keep this shared space as clean as possible,” Legge says.
Follow the rules.
Each restaurant is going to take a different approach to safety. It may include a temperature check, logging names for contact tracing in case someone in the restaurant tests positive for coronavirus, setting table time limits, or requiring that diners wash or sanitize their hands before sitting down. Patronizing a business means following their rules, which are only in place to keep everyone safe.
Restaurants have even used the opportunity to innovate, like La Goulue in New York City, which has a QR code for diners to view the menu, something owner Bernard Collin says people are “totally appreciating” in order to avoid holding a menu. Modern Steak in Calgary created “10 Modern Dining Commandments” to convey new guidelines to guests, including “go with the flow” and “let’s all be nice to each other,” concluding that, “If following the rules isn’t your thing, we ask you to stay home until you’re comfortable.”
To see what specific safety precautions individual restaurants are taking, simply check OpenTable restaurant profiles for a list of actions such as requiring masks or offering contactless payment.
Make as few requests as possible.
Dropped a fork? Want lemon for the water? Need some hot sauce? Try to limit the frequency of requests, instead grouping a few into one ask, if necessary, so servers can maintain as much distance as possible while still helping out, recommends Cole. “The more a table can consolidate requests, the faster everything will come,” he says, explaining that at his restaurant The Vault, the distance from outdoor tables to the kitchen is a full city block and a flight of stairs, so having to do that trip for each request adds up. The Exchange‘s Aquilini adds that “everything takes longer when changing gloves after every use, washing hands, and sanitizing.”
Keep your distance.
Stay at your table, and try to avoid clustering near the host, bar, or bathroom. Social distancing limits the spread of COVID-19, and getting up can make other diners feel uncomfortable, Aquilini says. It also raises the potential of touching ledges, chair rails, unseated tables, and other surfaces that the staff would then have to take the time to re-disinfect. Help out by staying put as much as possible and keeping your group — including kids — in your designated area. Modern Steak owner Stephen Deere’s best advice? “A wave or a text is the perfect solution.”
Though all tips are appreciated by staff, Cole says, 20 percent should be thought of as the minimum right now. “If you have an exceptional experience, or recognize the staff is working in tremendously difficult conditions, tip more,” he advises. “If your experience wasn’t great, I would recommend still tipping the 20 percent, but maybe share your feedback directly with the restaurant. People need to make a living, and it is universally challenging right now.”
Deere calls anything above 20 percent right now the “COVID” tip, with many diners tipping double their normal right now. A survey of OpenTable diners found that more than half of diners are willing to tip more right now. “Things are tough economically, and we understand that, so we don’t want a guest to feel obligated to tip more,” Deere says. “But we appreciate when it happens.”
As diners make a return to restaurants, it’s necessary to accept that things are different. “Don’t expect everything you used to get to be available. Have some flexibility, and try to work within the system the restaurant is providing,” Cole says. “For those that do, they will have a great experience. For those that can’t accept times have changed, they will never be happy. We hope people can just relax and go with the flow.”
It may be tempting to want restaurants to provide that small semblance of normal during turbulent times, but that will only set everyone up for failure. Service is likely going to be slower as staff follows new protocols. Food may not be perfect. Many places will have new policies, such as not allowing staff to take photos for people (to avoid cross-contamination via the phone) and other not-fun rules.
“We know many of the guidelines don’t make sense to everyone, but we must abide by them,” Aquilini says. “The industry is facing so many challenges daily, many of which the guests will never see. I would just ask that people assume positive intentions and know that we want nothing more than have you join us, stay safe, and have a great time.”
Everyone is adjusting to new safety practices, so try to cut the staff some slack. Remember that “it is a privilege to be able to dine out at restaurants right now,” as Ross puts it, and that “we all have to do our part to stay safe and limit our exposure so we can continue to trend in a safe direction as a community.”
Respect that the restaurant is trying — it’s still better than another night doing the dishes.