The Takeout Patron’s Pledge

I do hereby solemnly swear:
that I will not look down on truncated to-go menus, but rather regard them as a sensible way to optimize goodness;
that I will avoid ordering hot sandwiches with lettuce on them because that’s just not going to end well at home;
that I will eat my french fries as soon as it is safe to take off my mask, i.e., as quickly as I can get 6 feet from others or into the car, for cold french fries do a disservice to us all; 
that I will follow any and all cooking or reheating instructions carefully in order to give the food a fighting chance;
that I will tip generously, for times are tough;
and that I will not leave negative Yelp reviews because I am not a jerk who kicks people when they’re down.

Bethany Jean Clement: First off — please, please get takeout. And tip big. During COVID-19, the restaurant industry is suffering terribly. If we don’t patronize our favorite places, they will not make it through this thing. 

But as the Seattle Times restaurant critics, my friend Tan Vinh and I cannot in good conscience recommend dining in now. We’ve been out to eat together once since Gov. Inslee reopened restaurant dining rooms in June. We went before bountiful evidence unfolded that bars and restaurants can become coronavirus hot spots, and even then, we were both very unnerved by the experience.

We thought we’d chosen carefully, but dinner took a very long time, even though conscientious restaurants were supposed to be truncating the duration of dining for safety’s sake. Multiple people waited on us, when contact was supposed to be minimal. As the long moments passed, the room seemed to get smaller and quieter, more and more airless. The servers wore masks, which was good, but more like dining in an operating room than like the good old days. It was not fun. Why were we doing this again?

Tan Vinh: And the poor servers who checked in on us while we were maskless (because we were eating) — they shouldn’t have to risk their health. This is not part of the “customer is always right and servitude” social contract. The protocol should be if a server approaches, diners should stop eating and put your damn masks on. There is something very demeaning about servers having to wait on you while you’re maskless and eating.

But let me yield the pulpit to Marissa Baker, an assistant professor at the University of Washington Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, who studies how COVID-19 affects workplaces. She warns that Seattle should brace for more restaurant workers and diners to contract the coronavirus during this pandemic. “The virus is very much here and spreading,” she said. “We have indoor dining, and as we know, the virus spreads more easily indoors. … Personally, I wouldn’t want to eat indoors right now.”

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This is one of the state’s leading experts on COVID-19, people. If you don’t want to listen to us, heed her advice.

Bethany: In addition to Professor Baker, six of the nation’s top health experts have all said they would not even consider dining in a restaurant anytime soon. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it’s risky, and it’s especially so for the servers who must interact with the privileged maskless dining class — the four I talked to for a story last month felt pressured and scared. One said it felt like restaurant workers were disposable, which rings both heartbreaking and true. And restaurant owners are in a terrible position, with insufficient government aid, the need to make ends meet, and now the expectation that they’ll take on the role of amateur epidemiologist — somehow able to cobble together a safe environment during a global pandemic.

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Tan: On paper, these social distancing guidelines seem clear — no parties of more than five, tables must be 6 feet apart — but those mandates aren’t practical, as we learned. Cooks work in cramped kitchens where 6 feet of separation is sometimes impossible. Diners don’t wear masks after being seated. Servers often get closer than 6 feet so diners can hear them and to deliver plates.

Bethany: Tan, your recent story showed that COVID-19 outbreaks are happening in Seattle restaurants without anyone ever even knowing about it, because there’s no legal requirement to report them. Most chefs and owners absolutely want to do the right thing, but it’s the Wild West out there — the official guidance is absolutely inadequate, and lives are at stake.

Tan: I know of a dozen restaurants where at least one employee — in most cases, a server — tested positive for COVID-19. Finally, last month, under the governor’s updated Safe Start plan, employers including restaurants now have to notify the local health department if “two or more” employees contract COVID-19 within a span of 14 days. That’s a start, but it still doesn’t go as far as other municipalities. For instance, in Washington, D.C., a restaurant with an infected employee must shut down for up to 48 hours for deep cleaning and can only reopen with the approval of the health department.

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Bethany: The sooner we get this virus under control, the sooner we can go back to dining in without risk and fear, like the good old days. Yes, it feels constricted — everything has, for so long — but if we wear masks and reduce risk as much as possible, we can get through this thing. 

Meanwhile, there’s takeout. So much good takeout is out there! Support your local restaurants and get great food that you don’t have to make yourself — it’s a win-win!

Tan: We’ve gotten takeout at about 100 different places, and they’ve gotten so much better at the takeout game. After the governor shut down dining in back in March, most restaurants started offering their entire menus to go. They quickly learned not all food transports well. Restaurateurs wised up and started running smaller, more practical menus.

Bethany: A short menu shouldn’t be looked at derisively; doing less makes it easier to do it better. And some places have devised special menus that travel especially well. Brand-new 84 Yesler — which, yes, opened during COVID-19 — has a multicourse takeout New York steak dinner that’s prettily packaged, travels perfectly, tastes delicious and comes generously portioned for two at $65. Add a bottle of nice red wine and you’re still getting what feels like a real splurge at a way-less-than-old-splurge price.

Tan: The packaging is much better now. Burgers, for instance, are popular as takeout but they don’t hold up as well as pizza, so restaurants such as Andaluca store the pickles and condiments in separate containers so that your souped-up burger isn’t a soggy mess when you get home. If you want anything with sauces and lettuce, you can request those be stored separately. 

I never thought I’d say this, but I miss those Chinese takeout containers and flimsy brown cartons — these plastic Tupperware-like containers are like steam chambers. They continue to cook your takeout while you’re driving home. That’s why most of our fancy Italian restaurants — Carrello, Artusi, Serafina, Il Nido — give you the option of “cooking kits” with fresh pasta, sauces and Parm packaged separately. As someone who has ordered pasta takeout and pasta cooking kits, I can say with great certainty the latter tastes two times better. Your cooked pasta suffocates in those plastic containers and turns mushy.

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Bethany: Speaking of hamburgers and driving home — eat your french fries in the car. They’re not going to get better with time. They deserve it, you deserve it!

And if you get pasta with cooking instructions — or anything with reheating directions — follow them carefully. If the instructions seem vague, give the food its best chance by calling the restaurant and asking (extra nicely) for help.

Some of Bethany’s favorite spots for takeout so far:

The Barbeque Pit, Bar del Corso, Bar Harbor, Cafe Campagne, Cafe Juanita, Carrello, D’ La Santa, Dino’s, Hue Ky Mi Gia, The Independent Pizzeria, Jerk Shack, Kedai Makan, Mamnoon, Paju 

Some of Tan’s favorite spots for takeout so far:

Bok a Bok, Il Nido, Gracia, Monsoon, Joule, Serafina, Homer, The Butcher’s Table, L’Oursin, Manolin, 84 Yesler, Pair and Frank’s Oyster House.

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