If we’re being truly honest with ourselves, the new rules that will surround restaurants’ dining rooms in the near future don't sound like much fun. From the temperature scans at the front door for both patrons and staff, to the socially distanced seating that will require spaces be half to two-thirds empty, to the masks that staff will have to wear all the time and the diners will have to wear whenever they aren’t actively eating or drinking – there is no amount of seasoning that could make the experience seem delectable to anyone other than the most eccentric diners and dedicated foodies.
Restaurants, after all, aren’t just about the food, but also the dining out experience. The fun and fellowship of breaking bread with family and friends, the romance of staring into a paramour’s eyes over a candlelit dinner, and the excitement of a culinary adventure at a totally new place – these are things that probably won’t be common side dishes at restaurants. Social distancing doesn’t do much for fellowship, wearing a mask is something of a romance killer in most public contexts and having one’s face scanned by a complete stranger who now knows your body temperature really hampers the sense of anonymity when going somewhere new.
It’s why many restaurateurs are bailing out of the game now, with the belief that the world of in-house dining is, for the time being, deader than disco. Danny Meyer, founder and CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group; Swiss chef Daniel Humm, owner of Manhattan’s Eleven Madison Park; David Chang, chef and owner of Nishi and Momofuku; and Chicago-based restaurant owner and James Beard award-winning chef Abe Conlon have all announced they are shutting their doors, either permanently or for the extremely long term.
“This crisis has exposed the underlying vulnerabilities of our industry and made clear that returning to normal is not an option,” Chang said in a statement on Momofuku’s website. “We don’t have all the answers that will get us through this crisis. We are writing the rules in real time, and there will be much to learn along the way. The world has changed forever, and Momofuku needs to change with it.”
What those changes will look like are still a work in progress. Some are developing meal kits or food market concepts to replace their dine-in facilities. Others are simply shutting down entirely and contemplating their next move in a situation that is fundamentally fluid.
These are all sensible and reasonable courses of action.
And then there are those who have decided to go a different way, who have looked around them and realized that in a world gone mad in the face of an attack by a black swan, the only thing to do is abandon all reason and get creatively crazy along with the times.
As the great Hunter S. Thompson famously said: “When the going gets tough, the weird go pro.”
Times are weird – and the professionals have taken the wheel. Or, to be more accurate, the pool noodles.
An Entire New Meaning for the ‘Local Noodle Place’
How do you solve a problem like social distancing in a place like a restaurant – as in, how does one make sure that patrons maintain the requisite distance, since it’s not exactly obvious how far apart four to six feet actually is?
One German establishment has come up with an out-of-the-box solution: They are asking the patrons to put pool noodles – measuring 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) – on their heads.
"This was the perfect method to keep customers apart – and a fun one," Jacqueline Rothe, owner of Schwerin, Germany’s Cafe Rothe, noted of the unusual solution. "It was a perfect gag, and of course it was funny, our customers were really into it. But what it did show to us (was) how difficult it is to keep a distance of 1.5 meters.”
Consumers, of course, were not expected to bring their own pool noodles to the establishment. The cafe handed them out at the door on the day of its grand reopening last week, taped in an X to a lightweight fedora that customers could wear while they sipped their coffee in the spring sunshine.
Apart from the specialized headgear, the cafe and confectionery shop is taking some more standard methods to control crowding. It normally has 36 tables inside and 20 outside at this time of year; with the new rules in place, they now have 12 tables inside and eight outside. As for what comes next, Rothe said that remains a mystery, as the summer tourist season has yet to hit – or not hit – and that will determine much of their fate.
“We will see what to expect when Germany opens up further, more people are allowed to travel and we have more tourists coming in the next few weeks – we will take it as it comes," said Rothe.
We imagine having the most unusual social distancing aid in the entire European Union on offer at their front door could help motivate even the limited number of tourists to stop in for a coffee.
And lest one worry that truly unusual responses to social distancing requirements are entirely the provenance of our cousins across the pond, fear not.
A restaurant in Virginia may have come up with something even stranger to keep people coming through their doors in the era of recovery:
This innovation comes care of a fine dining establishment at The Inn at Little Washington in Rappahannock, Virginia. It had originally aimed for a May 15 reopening, but that plan was a bit disrupted by Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s announcement that restaurants could reopen in May for outdoor seating only, and at 50 percent capacity.
But reopening for indoor restaurants will be on the agenda within the next few weeks – chef Patrick O’Connell, winner of the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award, is preparing the way only a chef who also majored in drama in college can: by filling half of the restaurant's seats with mannequins dressed in 1940s garb, according to reports in the Washingtonian. While waiting for the reopening, waiters are currently practicing interacting with the mannequins and serving them wine.
The dolls are there because O’Connell feels it is highly likely that when they are allowed to reopen, they will be limited to 50 percent capacity, which he believes will feel uncomfortable and weird to diners. Being surrounded by mannequins dressed for a WWII-era cocktail party? Also weird, he admits – but in a fun way. Particularly because the waitstaff will be wearing customer-created coronavirus masks modeled after Marilyn Monroe and George Washington.
They will also clean the entire place with an infrared scanner each night, O’Connell noted – because people need to be able to feel safe to actually have fun.
“I think it would do people a world of good to reduce their anxiety level when they come out to a place that is still unaffected,” O’Connell noted, “because if you watch your television, you think there isn’t such a place under a bubble.”
And speaking of a bubble … yes, that is also sort of a dining option – provided one is willing to travel to Amsterdam and take a fairly broad definition of the word. A Dutch vegan eatery has managed to stay open for the entire lockdown period – which has been ongoing in the Netherlands since mid-March – because it seats and serves its diners inside individual greenhouses, according to a New York Post report.
“This was one of the most feasible ideas from a large list of ideas we had when brainstorming,” said Willem Velthoven, founding partner of the Mediamatic Biotoop restaurant that is experimenting with the very inside-the-box concept.
The restaurant is made up of five separate, tiny greenhouses in which guests are served a four-course, plant-based meal alongside an Amsterdam canal. Waiters pass dishes through the door from a safe distance, and only groups that live in the same house are permitted to share the dining pod.
And if the term “dining pod” sounds a bit claustrophobic, the restaurant says patrons laud the “sexy kind of intimacy” the experience promotes, and that the experience is already sold out through the end of June of this year.
So will pool noodles, mannequins or personalized glass dining pods be the future of mainstream dining? To be candid, we do find that a bit hard to imagine.
But then again, in the last few weeks, we’ve seen a lot of things we would have once found difficult to imagine – so we are loath to say that anything is impossible.
One thing we are pretty sure of: There’s probably no way to combine pool noodles, mannequins and glass pods into a single dining concept – if for no other reason than geometric limitations. But everything else – and we do mean everything – is on the table.