Josh Freed: Despite COVID effect, restaurant experience still worth it

Josh Freed: Despite COVID effect, restaurant experience still worth it

For all of the weird changes, after 18 months without restaurants, it’s nice to be surrounded by strangers wining, dining and chatting away.

Author of the article:

Josh Freed  •  Special to Montreal Gazette

No longer will you see wine glasses or cutlery on the table when you arrive at most restaurants. They have been whisked away so people won’t contaminate them, Josh Freed writes.
No longer will you see wine glasses or cutlery on the table when you arrive at most restaurants. They have been whisked away so people won’t contaminate them, Josh Freed writes. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Dave Sidaway / Montreal Gazette

The COVID-19 earthquake is subsiding, but its tremors are still being felt in many ways, from a fear of riding the métro to empty movie theatres to two-feet apart, turn-your-head-away air kisses.

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But nothing has changed more than restaurants, which are now as unrecognizable as your waiter is behind a mask, making it even harder than before to remember which one is yours.

For those who still haven’t stepped foot in one since the start of the pandemic, here’s what to expect from our reinvented restaurants:

Patio please: Many indoor dining rooms are half-empty, while their terrasses have a 40-minute wait. Everyone’s still scrambling for a spot in the great, safe outdoors, regardless of the temperature, to avoid sharing their air.

Many places have acquired heat lamps, long-standing features in Europe that are only just becoming popular here, as COVID-battered Montrealers try to squeeze more days out of the fall. When winter comes, will our terrasses offer fur throws like in Scandinavia or ask you to BYOB — bring your own blanket?

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Sanitized seating: As you sit down, you’ll think someone has stolen everything off your table. Gone are the mustard, ketchup, salt, pepper and sugar packs once found on tables, whisked away so people won’t contaminate them. They’ve gone the way of ashtrays, once routine on tables, too.

Even the most basic table setting has vanished: your knife and fork. Most places now bring them out bundled in antiseptic napkins, like a surgeon’s scalpels, to reduce human contact. Others offer plastic cutlery to saw your way through your rib steak.

Customers used to seek out the liveliest section of a restaurant, disappointed if they were led to an empty spillover room. Now, that’s where many want to be, say restaurateurs, away from human breath.

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“People still want people around for fun, but they also want space,” says Stephen Marcone, owner of the popular Italian eatery Amerigo in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce “They want to be part of the action, but not in the middle of it. It’s like how we’ve gone back to fist-bumping but not shaking hands.”

Masking rules: They’re so complex no one grasps them. You must wear masks while waiting outdoors in line, but can unmask indoors all night at your crowded table, as long as you re-mask when you head alone to the bar or bathroom. But it’s OK to drink and gather at the bar TV and cheer on the Habs.

Waiters must always wear masks, so they’re hard to hear as they attempt to recite the day’s specials. Few still give long adjective-laden descriptions about the “Sargasso Sea fish medley served with fresh caught, range-free, carbon-neutral Norwegian seaweed, etc.” or they’d be gasping for air. Instead, expect this:

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Waiter: The spzzzchl today is a filet of schnassper in a shlolandze sauce with fresh gnsnsx.

You: Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that.

Waiter: Shorry. I shaid: The Spexxl is shpsspyer in schlondz (gasp) sorry … in schlondzsze (gasp)

You: Never mind, I’ll take a burger.

Shrinking staff: Restaurants everywhere are short employees who have fled the long-hour, low-pay business in droves. Their replacements often look as untrained and clumsy as I would be, some so baby-faced I should card them.

I was in a takeout sushi joint last week, and the two sibling cashiers were no older than 11. At least the chef was their dad, not their teenage brother. If the waiter shortage gets any worse, we may have to lower the legal working age to five.

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Dwindling menus: These relics may soon go the way of the phone book and Britannica. Many restaurants now offer flimsy disposable menus along with QR codes: the bar code on each table that opens an online menu on your phone.

The upside of QR menus is you never have to twiddle your thumbs waiting for a menu while a busy server pretends you’re not there. But these codes often collect your data, so next time you’re at your favourite spot, the waiter may say:

“The usual, madame? Tuna cooked medium-rare but not too medium, or too rare, salad with olive oil-only dressing on the side , along with green beans, lemon and potatoes on a separate plate, but no two foods touching each other?”

“Hmm … I see you’ll be tipping five per cent. I’ll remember that, too.”

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Dinner hour: My wife and I always made reservations for 8 p.m., but the pandemic and its five-month curfew changed our internal clocks. Now, we often reserve at 6:30 p.m. or earlier, and even then there’s a battle for tables by a new generation of COVID-created early birds.

Amerigo restaurant owner Marcone says many people now come for wine and appetizers at 3:30 p.m., when the room is emptier. All over town, you see restaurant lights going out before 9 p.m. as our famed nightlife city goes to sleep.

For all the strange changes in restaurants, after 18 months without them, it’s quite nice to be surrounded again by a roomful of strangers wining, dining and chatting away, even at a distance.

So if you try one, tip well and keep our city’s waiters waiting. That favourite restaurant you save may be mine.

joshfreed49@gmail.com

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