To dine out or not to dine out was an ordinary question a few months ago. The answer usually came down to whether you had the energy to get dressed, or something equally banal. The specter of COVID-19 has since turned that question far more serious, and diners are caught in a Catch-22 of wanting to support restaurants and the economy, while avoiding putting themselves and others at risk.
The reopening of dining rooms June 5 was a milestone, but not the miracle restaurateurs were hoping for. Due to reduced seating capacity to allow for social distancing, restaurants generally can accommodate only half the business they had before the pandemic. Even then, seats remain mostly empty as the recent uptick in COVID-positive numbers has people sticking close to home.
Linda Kai, 75, said she’s even given up on takeout, having visited a couple of fast-food businesses where employees prepared food in front of customers without wearing masks.
“They were standing right by the food and breathing on it,” she said. “They need to understand that if they’re not compliant, they’re hurting their fellow restaurant people. It’s not only their jobs at stake. It only takes one to mess up a bunch of people. I wonder how many other people like me have decided not to eat out for the same reasons?”
Others have shared more positive experiences with her, but she’s not swayed.
“My acupuncturist told me about a restaurant where they were working so hard to be compliant that she felt completely safe. They even disinfected her money before giving her change back. But I don’t know who’s compliant and who’s not.”
THEORETICALLY, all bars and restaurants must comply with city and state standards or risk being shut down. In early June, the state Department of Health began including COVID-19 guidelines — including checking air-filtration systems — as part of its usual safety inspections. Concerned patrons can alert the department to violations regarding social distancing and cleanliness. So far, the main concern has been overcrowding at a few bars, which has resulted in all bars ordered to stop serving alcohol at midnight.
“I think every restaurant is having a hard time now,” said Chai Chaowasaree, chef and owner of Chef Chai. “I feel so bad for them. I take my mother out for lunch every day and they used to be full. Now they only have guests at two or three tables. I think the longer this goes on, more restaurants are gonna close.”
Chaowasaree said he is doing all right, mostly on the strength of takeout and special events, such as a $70, seven-course seventh-anniversary dinner offered through Friday, focusing on favorite foods from his childhood in Thailand.
“People request to sit outside a lot,” he said, but he can only have four tables on his patio.
He also had a surge in business when he began offering free face shields to in-house diners, still available while supplies last.
A FEW new restaurants have lured patrons out of their homes for a firsthand look. Cafe Miro in Kaimuki and Istanbul at Ward Village appear to be filling the seats they are allowed to have.
But the experience of Kenneth Lee, chef/owner of Restaurant XO in Kaimuki, is more typical. Having just marked its second anniversary in the midst of the pandemic, XO is not new enough to benefit from the novelty factor. Lee saw a bump in business the first week restaurants reopened, but it didn’t last. “It’s like an on-off switch.”
News of more community spread has driven many home again, he said. “I survey every person who comes into the restaurant. I ask them ‘Are you eating out?’ And 80% of my customers are still not eating out. They’re only doing takeout. There’s a lot of older people here and they think it’s too risky to dine in.”
Lee typically serves 15 to 20 dine-in customers on weekend nights. “Thirty is a busy day. Before, 80 people was a busy day, and on a special occasion like Mother’s Day, there would be more than 90.”
Still, he said he will do OK, even if a return to “normal” won’t come until a vaccine materializes in one to three years.
“I didn’t have to wait for the coronavirus to teach me how to work efficiently. I’m still doing the same things, with a no-waste philosophy. We use a lot of preservation techniques here: curing, dehydrating, fermenting, pickling.”
He runs a lean staff in the kitchen and waits on customers himself.
“It’s really safe if you dine in because you’ll be the only one here, and if there are other customers you’ll be 20 feet away because there are four corners in our dining room. Plus my staff don’t have lives. They just work and go home.”
Despite such reassurances, diners remains skeptical and want to see bigger changes. In the Netherlands, the vegan restaurant Mediamatic ETEN has gone as far as separating diners by cocooning them in their own three-person greenhouses.
That’s an investment unlikely to prove feasible here, but some patrons have smaller-scale suggestions.
Designer Amos Kotomori would like to see restaurateurs provide individual utensils for shared dishes, or do away with family-size portions altogether, to offer smaller individually plated meals.
“The restaurants need to be supported, so I’ll do takeout, but I won’t go out and eat in them,” said Kotomori, a cancer survivor who said he ticks off every box for a high-risk individual. “I have heart disease, I’m diabetic and 10 in dog years. I think that’s everything.”
Despite recent increases in cases, he said, he observes more people growing careless about wearing masks. “They need to think about other people and be more mindful of their role in spreading the disease. People worry about tourists coming back, but it’s here and being spread within our own community.”
A social butterfly by nature, Kotomori said he has always enjoyed entertaining at his home.
“Enjoying food together is such a bonding experience. When I’m eating my takeout at home alone it never tastes as good, but if I get together with friends now, it’s by Zoom. It’s not the same, but it’s what we have to do now.”
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.