On a broiling spring afternoon, with waves of heat washing over me and a punishing sun threatening any exposed skin, there was no choice but to dine al fresco on the patio of Rosso Pizzeria in Santa Rosa.
Literally, no choice. As of Saturday, May 24, the patios (and only the patios) of our favorite Sonoma County restaurants are open again (provided everyone is masked, spaced and sanitized).
No more yearning for a properly cooled Vermentino, hot fried chicken, crisp lettuce and someone else to do the dishes. I’ve never been happier to eat a beet salad in my whole life. Huzzah!
In this version of our new normal, restaurants are more than takeout spots again. Nearly 150 have already opened their patios, with dozens more coming online within days. Restaurants must comply with strict guidelines set by the state and county.
Stating the obvious: A return to public dining isn’t for everyone while coronavirus still rages. There are clearly risks, much like we take every time we leave our houses even with masks. Takeout or simply cooking at home may be a better plan for some.
But if you do plan to dine al fresco, it’s not nearly as weird as naysayers make it out to be. Some things are hardly noticeable, like the disposable paper menus and pre-rolled silverware in napkin rolls. We’re all in masks, so I’m pretty okay with our server wearing one. Our table ends up with our masks dangling most of the time — putting them over our faces when we’re not eating. That’s what I do most of the time when I’m outside anyway, masks on near people, mask off when I’m alone.
Tables are spaced far apart (kinda nice not to be crammed next to loud talkers). Servers and owners are obvious about their cleanliness, with lots of signs and bleach spray around. The absence of sticky tables, communal salt, and nasty ketchup bottles is delightful, because they’ve always grossed me out.
If you’re worried your food will be touched by restaurant staff, I’ll let you in on a secret: It will be and it always has been. That’s how you make food. I’ve spent a lot of time in restaurant kitchens and even after a long shift, most of them are more sanitary than mine. Handwashing is mandated. I’m way more worried about touching a grocery cart than I am a server touching my plate.
Don’t freak out about people wearing gloves, either. Studies show people generally wash their hands less when wearing them. Or they wash with them on, which is really weird.
Why take the risk? It’s the experience of eating out. All those little intangibles, like someone else filling your wine glass, as well as the very tangible — eating incredible food you simply can’t make at home. It’s a culinary vacation where we reconnect with our favorite servers, eat complicated dishes on a whim, chatter mindlessly with family and friends, and walk away from the mess when we’re done. Bliss.
Like everything I can’t do, I’ve forgotten how much I miss that, and how much I took it for granted.
Right now, restaurants have everything at stake, but the sad truth is that patio dining, takeout and delivery won’t save restaurants — it’s a stop-gap. The margins are too low for a restaurant to remove 80 percent of their seating and still make a profit. Most restaurants bothering to open right are receiving federal loans from the SBA and the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) which will eventually run out. The PPP is a sticky wicket, requiring restaurants to hire back a significant portion of their staff who have very little to do if the restaurant only offers takeout.
There’s also an ethical issue of whether restaurateurs should expose staff to guests who could be sick. Or vice versa.
Until restaurants can operate at full capacity or reinvent themselves completely, the future is uncertain. But for now, at least we can appreciate a moment of sitting in our favorite restaurants eating beet salad and pretending life is at least a little bit normal.