Be patient, be kind: A guide to dining out in Melbourne post-lockdown

Afik Gal and the crew at Miznon in Hardware Lane are ecstatic abouth opening up again.
Afik Gal and the crew at Miznon in Hardware Lane are ecstatic abouth opening up again.  Photo: Jason South

After a week-long sixth lockdown turned into 78 days of "five reasons to leave home', Melbourne is allowed to dine out again.

There's no city in the world more used to shrugging off stay-at-home orders and heading back out for laksa, latte, lobster rolls and lager. But even Melbourne has never had a reopening like this: the COVID caseload is significant and the economy is opening only to those who are vaccinated.

"It's going to take a while to balance itself out but we have to find a new reality, an acknowledgement of the risks but a pathway to a more normal life," says Afik Gal, chef at Miznon in the city's Hardware Lane.

"It's been extreme in Victoria. This feels like the moment when we really emerge on the other side and find our new normal."

The new normal isn't quite normal though. For the first time, restaurants must police vaccine mandates for both diners and staff. Diner limits and density restrictions make it challenging to create an atmosphere, let alone make any money.

Industry-wide staffing shortages are also more critical now than at any point during the pandemic, meaning menus are often shorter and dishes simpler. Staff may be very green.

The Prince Public Bar in St Kilda is back open for beers this weekend.
The Prince Public Bar in St Kilda is back open for beers this weekend.  Photo: Christopher Hopkins

So what can diners expect as they wrap their mouths around Melbourne? And what kind of eater will restaurants be delighted to welcome back?

Be kind, be patient

"We're excited – so excited – but we want customers to be understanding," says Andy Ryan, managing director at The Prince pub complex in St Kilda.

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"We will all be doing our best but there's a lot for us to do: checking in guests, monitoring vaccine passports, wearing masks and paying attention to all the government guidelines."

And that's just the groundwork before the pub team starts delivering hospitality.

"What we really love to do is focus on giving our guests the best experience possible," says Ryan. "I always think of a duck: calm on top and paddling like hell underneath."

The team at Mediterranean restaurant Miznon burn sage to cleanse the venue before reopening.
The team at Mediterranean restaurant Miznon burn sage to cleanse the venue before reopening.  Photo: Jason South

Get a passport

If you're not fully vaccinated yet, you need to stick to takeaway for now. The easiest way to prove you're double-dosed is via the Service Victoria check-in app which has embedded instructions on uploading a vaccine certificate. A print-out is also valid.

Children 15-years and under may dine with vaccinated carers and those very few people with medical contraindications may attend with a doctor's certificate.

Fitzroy North restaurant Citrico where owner Nan Kroll says checking vaccination status is added stress for reopening.
Fitzroy North restaurant Citrico where owner Nan Kroll says checking vaccination status is added stress for reopening. Photo: Christopher Hopkins

Checking vaccination status is the aspect of reopening which most concerns operators. "I am anxious," says Nan Kroll, owner of Clifton Hill's Citrico. "I think most people will be kind and understanding. Some might be hesitant. It's an extra stress added to all the other stresses of opening."

Personnel shortages and budgetary constraints mean it's impossible to have someone dedicated to compliance.

"I can't have an extra staff member standing at the door," says Kroll. "We will seat diners, check they have their certificate, watch them check in and then start our sequence of service."

Andy Ryan, managing director at The Prince pub complex in St Kilda.
Andy Ryan, managing director at The Prince pub complex in St Kilda. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

Hospitality consultant Ilanit Bard expects confusion and conflict. "It's new for everybody," she says. Bard wants booking systems to advise customers of the requirements and, as a diner, plans to email her certificate in advance to restaurants.

"It's my way of saying, 'I support you guys'. It's awkward for someone earning $24 an hour to ask about something so personal. I will try to lift that burden for them so I can enjoy myself and they can enjoy the hosting part."

Be flexible

Restaurants often run seatings to make restricted diner numbers work financially. "We need to maximise what we can do within the rules we have," says Jenny Satyagraha from Simon's Peiking​ Duck in Box Hill South.

"We can't have more than 20 people inside and we don't have an outdoor area so we do a very short session at 5pm, then seatings at 6pm and 8pm. Some people tell us one hour is not enough but they need to know that we are just surviving here. We need people to be cooperative and flexible."

Have fun with tech

Technological innovations have helped restaurants through the pandemic and they're also helping them innovate on the other side.

New dating app Boop wants singles to stop scrolling and start dinner-dating and it's offering 15 per cent discounts to do it at numerous pubs around town. At The Prince, drinkers are encouraged to hunt for a hidden QR code in the venue and scan it to have their bar tab doubled.

Stay safe

If you feel sick, get tested then stay home. With COVID circulating widely, restaurants would rather cop a cancellation than have a positive case in the venue.

"We aren't out of the woods," says The Prince's Andy Ryan. "There is that fear and uncertainty. We might be past lockdowns but will we have multiple venues throughout the state closing down again?"

Masking up is important too. "Wear it when you enter the venue and go to the loo," says Bard. "Restaurant workers are frontline workers. It's a high risk job. Wearing your mask respects our safety and looks after us. It drives me nuts when people don't do it."

Make a connection

Masks, digital ordering and social distancing make it harder to connect. "The atmosphere and vibe we try to create depends on critical mass and getting energy going with music and interaction," says Miznon's Afik Gal.

With less of that, his team can feel deflated. "Customers come in, you welcome them, they sit down and the next thing they do is go on their phone to check in and order. It is the opposite of the experience I'm trying to create."

Diners who meet the restaurant halfway make an enormous difference. "If people come with the right attitude, it gives you a really good feeling," he says.

"In the past, customers expected something from the business. But I think now there's more understanding that both sides make this happen. There's a connection, a partnership that has been created and that can be exhilarating."