Restaurants

‘Bear with us’: As restaurants fully reopen, a new reality sets in

"Like a light switch, most people seem to think the pandemic is over," one restaurateur said.

Outdoor diners on Newbury Street
Outdoor dining on Newbury Street. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

On May 29, over a rainy Memorial Day weekend, Massachusetts lifted nearly all remaining COVID-19 restrictions, allowing restaurants to fully reopen with no capacity limits and other COVID-19 mandates. Cue the celebrations.

At The Greatest Bar, a couple hundred people RSVP’d to a dance party. At Encore Boston Harbor, a casino floor filled with visitors counted down to a new restrictions-free day. Restaurant patios may have closed due to weather, but inside some dining rooms, customers reveled in the absence of socially distanced tables and time limits. 

Erin Barnicle, general manager of Tempo in Waltham, said that guests at her restaurant were “elated to be out and getting back to ‘normal’.” 

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“There is a new sense of freedom,” she said. “People are reconnecting again, sitting at the bar and even at tables and talking to other guests around them. It’s amazing.”

Brian Poe, chef and owner at The Tip Tap Room and Parish Cafe, said the distance barriers at his restaurants had been removed, and his businesses were “instantly full for more than one turn.”

But while many chefs and restaurateurs celebrated last weekend’s events, a handful told Boston.com that the shift in protocol will take some getting used to, and they’re asking diners to be patient as everyone adjusts to this latest reality.

John Kessen is a partner at Mamaleh’s, State Park, and Vincent’s in Cambridge, all of which still require staff and guests to wear a mask (though this will change in the next couple weeks, when vaccinated staff and guests will have the option to go maskless).

“Like a light switch, most people seem to think the pandemic is over,” Kessen said. “Many people come in without masks. When we ask them to put one on, nearly all are pleasant and apologetic. A few perhaps not.”  

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Kessen emphasized that some things are in flux at the moment — ”service may be different, dining out may become more expensive, selections may be limited, processes will change” — and that guests should be patient and understanding when dining out. 

Other restaurant owners are still maintaining seating arrangements that were made during the pandemic.

“We still do not have indoor seating available,” said Jay Spencer, owner at French Press Bakery & Cafe in Needham. “We have reconfigured our indoor flow and are allowing guests to use a mobile order pickup station instead of standing in one single line. Outdoor dining has been a game changer for us.”

Spencer said the bakery is requiring guests to continue wearing masks because some of the staff are still going through the vaccination process.

“Ironically, we see many guests still wanting to wear a mask,” he said. 

Cambridge’s Lamplighter Brewing Co. is gearing up to open its indoor taproom, in-house cafe Pepita Coffee Co., and original retail counter setup on June 9. Cayla Marvil, co-founder of Lamplighter, said that “the prospect of returning to our previous systems is incredibly exciting and also incredibly overwhelming.” 

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“When COVID first hit, we scrambled to change our entire business model and adapt to virtual events, retail-only sales, and online ordering,” she said. “Now it feels like we’ve finally learned the new routine, but we’re flipping everything upside down again. I hope it’s like riding a bike — we have run a taproom before! — but I would ask customers to be patient and to be kind. There’s a lot of new staff, a lot of remembering how to operate crowded indoor spaces, and a lot of questions about what is and isn’t safe and appropriate.”

Marvil’s request for patience right now is a common one among restaurateurs. Staffing remains an issue across the country as restaurants struggle to hire workers, resulting in shortened operating hours, smaller menus, and longer wait times.

Gloria Chin, owner of Double Chin and Bao Bao Bakery in Chinatown, said that despite the lifting of restrictions, Double Chin is unable to offer a dine-in option at the moment because “hiring is proving to be practically impossible.”

Kristen Valachovic, co-owner of Vee Vee in Jamaica Plain, agreed, noting that the lack of staff is keeping some restaurants from returning to full service.

“Rarely, if ever, has there been a time when virtually every restaurant is trying to hire at the same time,” she said. “It’s harder for smaller places to compete with large restaurant groups that offer benefits [like] 401(k), health, dental.”

For restaurants that are able to hire new staff, training takes time. 

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Luke Beardslee is an executive chef with the Lyons Group, which operates a handful of local restaurants including Back Bay Social, The Lansdowne Pub, and Rochambeau. He said that the staffing shortage has resulted in a lot of “new folks, trainees, and short-staffed shifts.”

“Bear with us,” he said. “Additionally, there are many shortages on food items, especially chicken, so expect menu adjustments and outages. We’ll continue to do our best, but many of the issues we are experiencing are acts of God and not for lack of effort on our part.”  

Restrictions may have lifted in Massachusetts, but the experience of dining out is far from normal. Restaurants still need time, patience, and compassion.

“The ‘we’re all in this together’ mentality during COVID was inspiring,” Marvil said. “I hope we can carry that back into post-pandemic operations.”

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