The new rules of dining during a pandemic, according to Boston chefs, owners, and restaurant staff
"For diners, I would ask for understanding and patience," said Cheryl Straughter, chef and owner at Soleil.
Say please and thank you. Leave a good tip. Try not to request a dozen substitutions.
As respectful diners, we’ve all agreed on some basic manners when going out to eat. But today’s landscape begs us to go a few steps beyond traditional dining etiquette. As the vast majority of restaurants grapple with mounting debt and shrinking dining rooms, and as servers continue to absorb additional risk by interacting with dozens of guests during each shift, it’s time to reexamine what being a good diner looks like during a pandemic. All the tried and true rules still apply, but there’s even more to take into consideration while we navigate a global health crisis together.
Here’s what a handful of chefs, owners, and staff in the Boston restaurant industry hope to see among diners as the pandemic continues.
1. Wear a mask when interacting with staff.
State guidelines are clear: Customers are required to wear face coverings at a restaurant, which can only be taken off when diners are seated at their tables. But restaurant staff are at a heightened level of risk when interacting with dozens of customers each day, and pulling up your mask when they approach your table is an extra gesture that doesn’t go unnoticed.
Julie King, owner of Villa Mexico Café in downtown Boston, said that because it isn’t a state requirement for diners to wear a mask while seated, she doesn’t ask customers to don the face coverings when her staff brings food to them on Villa Mexico’s outdoor patio. But when they do, she and her staff appreciate it.
“There are customers that are very respectful and they know what is going on with the pandemic and that they need to wear masks,” she said. “When we go outside [to bring them food], they immediately pull the mask up and cover their face.”
If restaurant staff are required to wear masks and, at many restaurants, gloves for the entire day, we can all manage a few more moments of mask-wearing when placing orders tableside.
“I always say, ‘It’s not a matter of you, it’s a matter of us,’ King said. “We need to protect each other.”
2. Have a backup plan.
You’ve landed a spot on the patio at your favorite restaurant. The oysters have arrived, the drinks are flowing, and you’re about to dive into your bolognese. Then: A crack of thunder, and suddenly the skies open. What’s your backup plan?
Oleana chef and owner Ana Sortun recommends that every diner should have one right now.
“With outdoor seating, lots of things can happen,” she shared. (Oleana currently offers outdoor seating only at its Cambridge digs.) “There’s no place to put anyone if it rains, so people have to hope for the best, take a chance, and just see what happens when it rains. Plans should remain loose!”
New motto for 2020: Loosen your dining plans.
3. Try not to linger too long after your meal has finished.
Seating is at a premium these days, as restaurants have had to greatly reduce guest capacity for both indoor and outdoor dining. While no one wants to encourage diners to hurry through their meal, making a point not to linger once you’ve finished eating allows the restaurant to fill that table with another much-needed customer.
“Good etiquette is trying not to leisure at the table for a long time,” said Nathan Doungdao, who works as a general manager and server at Mahaniyom in Brookline Village. The Thai restaurant opened just weeks before the shutdown, and has since reopened with indoor seating and a small outdoor patio.
Doungdau said that he hopes diners can employ “quick eating, try to be safe, and try to help each other,” as well as comply with restaurants’ individual requests — like Mahaniyom’s practice of obtaining diners’ names and phone numbers for contact tracing.
4. Flexibility and patience are appreciated.
Restaurants may have reopened, but their menus likely look a little different — and, in some cases, sparse, as some chefs must rework their dish lineup into a more economically sustainable selection.
“Restaurants, like so many other industries, are just changed forever, and I would ask that our diners understand the economic pain that we’re going through and just be patient with us,” said Cheryl Straughter, chef and owner at Soleil in Roxbury. “We’re out there trying to hold on to our staff, we’re trying to have diverse menu offerings, but sometimes we can’t offer everything we’ve offered before because you’re carrying a debt on your book. We’ve minimized our menu.”
Straughter said that Soleil’s outdoor space offers an experience that’s a little different from the table service provided at many other restaurants around the city, with an outdoor grill that diners order from before seating themselves.
“As we’ve all learned in life, patience is a virtue, and this time requires that on so many levels,” she said. “For diners, I would ask for understanding and patience.”
5. If you can, tip extra.
This practice is not something that restaurant staff expect — in fact, they understand that it might be even harder right now for people to tip.
“I think that’s a personal choice,” Straughter said. “We’ve had guests that have [tipped extra]. We also have guests that purchase food and are unable to tip. We treat everyone equally.”
But if you can tip beyond 20 percent, it would be a kind move, and one appreciated by staff that are experiencing a substantial dip in income due to reduced business.
“Some customers, we have to understand they’re not working right now, they’re unemployed or something like that,” Doungdao said. “But if they do tip more, servers would appreciate it because they have less tables.”
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