Restaurants are back in our lives. How do you feel? Like a sailor who hasn't been on a boat for a very long time? Have you lost your sea legs? Will you fall overboard?
Of course not; it will be a joy. But it will be different, especially in the next couple of months, as restaurants wrestle with numbers per square metre, staffing shortages and other issues.
We may need to create new habits, adopt new technology, develop new social codes. Here's a look at a few of the things to expect.
Enjoy the fresh air at The Newport. Photo: James Brickwood
Initially, at least, expect shorter operating hours and a focus on the "big nights" of Thursday, Friday and Saturday. There will be conditions of entry, the wearing of masks, and the sanitising of hands, as there will be in most public places where people gather. Restaurateurs will be looking to minimise interaction between diners and staff, so the menu may be single-use paper, or only accessible through a QR code.
Book ahead. Way ahead
You're not the only one dying to get back to dining out. All those fantasies you have about finally being able to get a sought-after table? Forget it. A hatted restaurant such as Firedoor in Surry Hills, where Lennox Hastie masterminds the charcoal grill, is booked out until March 2022. Get on to those Christmas and summer bookings now, especially for groups of four, six or more.
Order more. Drink up. Go for broke
Now is not the time to sit on a single caffe latte or a beer for two hours. Make your dining experience count – start with cocktails, chat to the sommelier about a new wine, try something different, stay for dessert. Hospo has had a hard time, and by extension so have restaurant suppliers, winemakers, distillers, brewers, growers and fishing folk. Your money goes all the way down the line.
Share your excitement, says head chef Danielle Alvarez (centre) of Fred's in Paddington. Photo: Anna Kucera
More and more restaurants require deposits at the time of booking to avoid the loss of business that happens when people don't show up for their booking. The last thing the restaurant industry needs right now are no-shows. If you make a booking, look forward to it and show up for it. Don't be a part of the problem, be a part of the solution.
Don't talk COVID
Steer the conversation away from the pandemic, especially if chatting with restaurant staff. Everyone has had a hard time; that doesn't mean we have to keep re-living it. "If you're excited to be out, share that excitement," says Danielle Alvarez of Fred's in Paddington. "The staff would love to hear how happy you are to be out dining again."
Follow protocols with good grace
They are conditions of entry designed to keep everyone safe, and they have been set by the government, not by the nervous 20-year-old at the door asking you to be compliant. "After the first lockdown, people were a bit nicer, a bit more understanding," says Giovanni Pilu of Pilu at Freshwater. "This time, it's a little different and we're finding they're being more demanding. We get it, but we're still getting used to it."
Personally, I consider masks and a vax passport a small price to pay for getting in the door of Phil Wood's new Ursula's in Paddington or winning a beach-facing table at the new Lola's Level 1 in Bondi.
Nab a beach-facing table at the new Lola's Level 1. Photo: Nikki To
Still nervous? Eat outside
If you're going to feel more relaxed dining out in the fresh air, then make that your thing. Besides, we're heading into a glorious Australian summer, so a pizza with water views at The Newport on the northern beaches or a taco and margarita party at the new Tequila Daisy at Barangaroo is not exactly a hardship.
Expect menus to change
My guess is that they will be shorter and more focused to reflect the reality of the food chain. Farmers and breeders had to de-stock during the pandemic, and it will take a while to build up stocks again. There will be shortages and higher prices in the meantime, compounded by delivery charges. (Is it true every driver out there is working for Providoor?) Beef, dairy and poultry, chefs tell me, will cost more.
Spread the joy
Who says everyone has to dine out on a Friday or Saturday night just because we used to? If you want to help out, find restaurants that open on the traditionally quieter nights of Sunday to Thursday, and dine out then.
Firedoor in Surry Hills, where Lennox Hastie masterminds the charcoal grill, is booked out until March 2022. Photo: Wolter Peeters
Forgive, and forget
Things will go wrong. If the staff are a bit rusty, then be the WD40 that helps them work smoothly again. "Please be patient," says Danielle Alvarez. "There may be a hiccup here and there, but everyone will be doing their best to make sure you have a great night."
My tip? Tip
Tipping is a way of saying "welcome back". It's not just about money, it's a gesture of appreciation, and of thanks. If you can't tip with money, then tip with kindness, understanding and a great big smile. Be happy to be there. It's a restaurant, not a dentist.