It has been a long 16 months in semi-continuous pandemic lockdown. While I have intermittently ordered takeaway from local restaurants (directly from the restaurant as much as possible to cut out the middleman fees), I didn’t consider in-person dining until I was fully vaccinated.
On my first return to in-person dining at a familiar beloved local restaurant, the superimposition of the new norms on top of old sights both startled and fascinated me. The hand sanitizer station prominently featured before the doors, signs requesting social distancing and detailing masking guidelines, multiple doors open on the premises and an impromptu outdoor patio, combined with the sparse and distanced seating made old sights new and different. To my Zoom-meeting-glazed eyes, even the nondescript white tarpaulin tent shading outdoor diners enchanted.
Removing my mask once drinks were served brought a sense of vulnerability and awkwardness; and the masks that remained fully on all servers’ faces constantly reminded me not only of the privilege I enjoyed being fully vaccinated but also the still-present gravity of living in a slowly receding pandemic. Dining at outdoor patios—some in parking lots, some immediately curbside, some pre-existing patios transformed into primary dining areas—reminds us that we still have a ways to go before we can return to any sort of pre-pandemic normalcy. However, I have found that outdoor dining comforts me more than dining inside around others since many businesses allow people to self-attest their vaccination status to enter without a mask. The illusion of mundanity in dining indoors alongside other maskless patrons is quickly dispelled when glancing up at staff, who mostly continue to protect themselves with masks. Many restaurants have new menus, or can’t safely offer some of the same items as before, like shabu-shabu restaurants.
Changes to appearances notwithstanding, the sheer amount of flavor and variety hitting my tastebuds continues to astound me after months of mostly just eating my own cooking. Though I have always sincerely loved food and eating at restaurants my entire life, I am delighting in dining out even more than before. After so long, it sometimes feels like I’m tasting my favorite foods for the first time all over again…And the fact that every time I’ve dined out in the past month has also been with friends has only added to my exuberance.
At least for now, the pandemic has made old experiences new again, kindling a profound gratitude for all the little things that make life that much more joyful. Please support your local businesses and eat out if you feel comfortable doing so, or continue to pick up and take away! Regardless of how you dine: please, please tip your server generously.