Everything you need to know about dining out post-lockdown

Customers sit at socially distanced tables outside a Carlton restaurant.
Customers sit at socially distanced tables outside a Carlton restaurant. Photo: Carla Gottgens / Bloomberg

The buzz around restaurants reopening has been palpable over the past week, but it's never been more important to play by the rules. It's our only shot at ensuring venues remain open and restrictions continue to lift. Some rules are clearly stipulated by the Victorian government, but grey area remains. Good Food is here to lay it all out, from legal requirements to COVID-safe dining etiquette.

The legalities

Hospitality venues can seat 20 people indoors, separated into 10 people per space (subject to density requirements of one customer per four square metres). Infants under 12 months old are not included in the cap. The maximum booking size is 10 people, seated 1.5 metres away from other groups. Venues can create separate spaces using 2.1-metre-high temporary structures. Outside, up to 50 people can be seated, with one person for every two square metres. On November 8, indoor and outdoor patrons will increase to 40 and 70 respectively, subject to the same requirements.

Observing guidelines, a masked bartender mixes a drink at The Supper Club in Melbourne.
Observing guidelines, a masked bartender mixes a drink at The Supper Club in Melbourne. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui

Venues must record your first name, phone number, the date and time of your visit and the venue area you visit (table number) and keep the information for 28 days. If you are on site for 15 minutes or more, for example waiting for takeaway, you must also leave your details.

Staff and customers must wear masks, except when consuming food and drink. Don't place your mask on the table when you remove it.

Alcohol can only be consumed while seated. Buffets are banned. Share plates are permitted. 

Set times and set menus

Venues are implementing their own rules to make operating with restrictions financially viable. This might include asking for a deposit when you book, a pre-payment that can be redeemed on food and drink when visiting, a time limit on a booking or a commitment to a set menu.

At Tulum in Balaclava, Coskun Uysal offers both an a la carte and set menu menu across his two-hour sittings (5pm, 7pm and 9pm), but the $99 seven-course set menu isn't just better value for the customer, it's also better for the restaurant.

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"With a set price, we know everyone is spending minimum $99. That is brilliant for the kitchen; it's always easier because we serve everyone the same dishes."

Booking strategies

With restrictions and pent-up demand, restaurant seats are hot property. If you're struggling to find a spot, call a restaurant that is yet to reopen, or that's less regularly featured in the media. A good starting point is in Chinatown, along Victoria Street, Abbotsford, or in restaurant-dense suburbs such as Box Hill. For the rest, it's time to rethink what constitutes "dinnertime".

"Don't eat at 7 o'clock, for Christ's sake," says Michael Bascetta, of Bar Liberty, Capitano and Falco Bakery. "People should think about having a late lunch or an early dinner to actually get a booking. A lot of venues are going to move to those extra timeslots."

Also look for restaurants adding lunch sittings as they get their flow back, including booked-out Bar Liberty and Capitano.

COVID dining etiquette

It's the responsibility of venues to implement a COVID-safe plan, but as a diner there are ways to stay safe and remain respectful. We've gathered some COVID-dining etiquette tips from hospitality industry players Coskun Uysal, Michael Bascetta, Christian Dal Zotto of Dal Zotto Wines, Joanna Reymond of Reymond Communications and Milieu Hospitality's Stefanie Breschi of Future Future, Congress and Lagotto.

Be ready for the unknown. There are a number of processes that are going to be really foreign to people that you need to be prepared for. It's like when we first started wearing masks; it was really weird, but now it's strange not having one. (MB)

Don't multi-book. Don't book a number of venues for the one night and then make your decision on the day. (JR)

Give notice when cancelling. If you can't make a booking, respect the venue and ring to cancel, because there are 100 other people that can take your spot. (CZ)

Be punctual. Arrive on time – not before your booking, not after. Many fail to understand the flow-on effect for the venue. There are financial implications as well as implications for other guests. And honour your out-by time. (SB)

Familiarise yourself with the rules. If we tell people to put on their mask when they go to the toilet, sometimes people get angry. (CU)

Familiarise your group with the rules. Take an extra second to let your group know what the deal is, and don't bring an extra friend. It sounds so dumb, but people do it. (MB)

Check in properly. I've heard stories from restaurants about people checking in with names like Donald Duck and leaving false numbers, and that's just not on. (JR)

Exercise patience. Be patient with the venue. Be patient with the staff. There are going to be moments when it feels awkward because it is, and that's OK. Remember that everyone's had 100-plus days off the tools. (CZ)

Practice empathy. You're sharing a space and experience with other human beings, both other guests and staff. We've all been starved of human contact for months so accept it might be a bit of an awkward situation. (SB)

Accept a different vibe. Be conscious  that the ambience of the restaurant during this time is not representative of what the restaurant is normally like. (JR)

Order well. Don't go in and sit on water and a main course. Be considerate of the minimum spend per head that the restaurant requires to actually be open. (JR)

Lay off the reviews. Don't go home, jump on your keyboard and write a bad review. Appreciate that things are going to be different and they're going to be different for a long time. (CZ)

Be open-minded. You might be used to going to a venue and expecting to do things a certain way, and some people might find it difficult to shake those expectations. Recognise that the venue probably doesn't want to change, but they have to. (SB)