Bethany Jean Clement: First off — hi, Tan! I miss you! After we became the restaurant critics for The Seattle Times back in the old order of things one million years ago (that is, last August), we went out to eat together at least a couple times a week. And also to bars — it was very, very important to test the wares of many, many bars.
Meanwhile, we’re both wearing Kleenex boxes on our feet, Howard Hughes-style. Right? How’s your man-bun coming along?
Tan: Kids around my block are advising me to get my hair braided instead. I’m now taking fashion advice from children. Talk about a cry for help. Phase 2 couldn’t have come any sooner for me. I can get a cut now that salons are partly reopening … And restaurants — dining rooms can operate at half capacity inside and outside (no party more than five, and tables must be 6 feet apart).
But I don’t sense any palpable excitement from the public about this new phase. I don’t get a meet-me-at-the-arbor-at-midnight-on-the-next-full-moon kinda giddiness over more restaurants reopening for dine-in.
Bethany: We haven’t heard from a lot of chefs and restaurateurs hotly anticipating Phase 2, either. Unless you have a pretty decent-sized spot, the numbers for staffing back up don’t pencil out much better than under Phase 1.5, when dining-in was at 25% capacity. Many in the industry have told us that they’ll wait this one out, continuing to just do delivery and takeout — or, like Ethan Stowell, at least wait to see what the demand from diners looks like after a presumable initial surge.
Excitement about dining out again … that’s going to be tricky for me, psychologically. I miss it so much. And I trust that responsible chef/owners will take every precaution to protect not just the diners, but staff, too. But I’ve seen some pretty crowded sidewalk seating under modified Phase 1, and plenty of people out there barefaced. Wearing masks and practicing physical distancing are the things that public health officials say we really, really need to do to prevent a resurgence and, you know, keep our beloved older friends alive. It’s much more the other patrons than the restaurants that scare me.
Tan: When I was in Skamania County to cover the restaurant reopenings down by the Columbia River , customers who didn’t get a table waited along the sidewalks, many brushing shoulder-to-shoulder with other parties and passersby. Most didn’t wear face masks. The scene looked very much like any other day in the pre-pandemic world. I was horrified. I worry that’s a preview of what we’ll see around King County.
Bethany: Places in the states that have reopened on faster schedules are seeing resurgences in coronavirus rates. California just made it a requirement to wear a mask in “most settings outside the home,” which seems only prudent in a time when prudence can actually save lives.
Tan: Fremont Brewing shut down on Tuesday after a server tested positive for the coronavirus. Several veteran restaurateurs tell me that’s going to be the norm — coronavirus closures after a few days of reopening are already happening around Florida, Arizona and Texas. Not everyone will feel comfortable dining out in Phase 2, or even Phase 3. In Skamania County last month, a handful of diners told me they tensed up after seeing servers in masks and surgical gloves. It was just too much for them to process. Even this week, my companion admitted she felt uneasy dining out in Seattle for the first time in three months.
Bethany: You’ve been out to eat! I’m still at home bathing in Purell. But I’m thinking about it. The head of Food Safety for Public Health Seattle & King County gave us a long list of tips for considering whether to dine out, preparing to dine out, what to look for safetywise when you get there … fun stuff (not at all). Also, they are very much encouraging diners who see unsafe conditions at restaurants to report them by calling 206-263-9566 or going to kingcounty.gov/depts/health/covid-19/contact.aspx. Please do it, people. We’re all in this together.
Tan: I think safety, more than the quality of the food, will be a priority for those who venture out. As critics, we have to start judging whether servers wear masks, enforce social distancing, disinfect not just every table and chair but every condiment bottle for every party as required. As diners, don’t expect the server to refill your water or wine glass — you might have to do it yourself. The goal in the new order is minimal contact. I think many diners will be shocked by their first table-service experience.
Bethany: It’s more like rating the operating room for your surgery than seeing how a place’s service measures up to Canlis. But that’s fine! Our world has changed so much … our old jobs make no sense right now, and did they ever? I got an email from a reader vis-à-vis our recent slew of recommendations for takeout in lieu of restaurant reviews. “Even when the restaurant world is under siege at this precarious moment in history, a critic needs to be selective and particular,” he said. He used the word “cheerleader.”
I wrote back, in part: “It’s fair to say that the restaurant industry is in an unprecedented crisis. I’ve certainly had subpar takeout experiences myself recently, but I’ve chosen not to write about them for the very simple reason that I don’t believe in kicking anybody when they’re down. These are not normal times, and they do not call for normal restaurant reviews.” I think it’s going to be quite some time before giving restaurants a star rating makes any sense whatsoever.