Masked waiters, tables spaced six feet apart, plexiglass barriers, and even stuffed animals occupying seats—these are some of the changes you might encounter the next time you dine out. As many U.S. states and countries around the world come out of lockdown, a whole new set of restrictions meant to slow the spread of COVID-19 are coming into play. Though there is still a lot we don’t know about the coronavirus, its rapid person-to-person spread is a threat to the way restaurants operate. And while many restaurants are suffering financially, some are coming up with creative ways to reopen while adhering to social distancing guidelines.
Making the Most of Outdoor Space
Every summer, in cities across the northern hemisphere, the demand for outdoor dining skyrockets. This year, though, the ability to sit outside in the fresh air—where coronavirus infection is less likely to occur—is paramount. In fact, outdoor dining may be the only option for restaurant-goers in cities like New York for the foreseeable future. Though the city has just entered Phase 3 of the coronavirus lockdown, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced recently that restaurants will not be allowed to reopen for indoor dining as anticipated, due to the rampant spread of the coronavirus in states like California, Florida, and Texas.
New York restaurants have been scrambling to expand their outdoor dining space however possible, and fortunately, the mayor is making it easier. As part of the Open Streets plan, 67 miles of streets are closed to vehicular traffic, with over 2.6 miles dedicated to Open Restaurants, an initiative that gives restaurant owners permission to expand their footprint onto the sidewalks and streets on the weekends provided they meet certain criteria. So far, 6,800 restaurants in New York City have reopened for outdoor dining.
One such restaurant is Melba’s in Harlem, which received a spiffed-up design by the Rockwell Group as part of the firm’s pro bono DineOut NYC project. According to founder and president David Rockwell, the project was born when he reached out to friend Melba Wilson, owner of Melba’s Restaurant and president of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, to ask how he could help create a safe space for restaurant workers and guests. He and his firm built and donated six outdoor dining areas at neighborhood restaurants in all five boroughs with the help of donations from furniture and fabric manufacturers and other design industry vendors.
“I believe that by continuing to think about flexibility and how to improve outdoor dining, this ‘new normal’ will be sustainable,” Rockwell tells AD, adding, “Based on what we know about COVID-19, I think we will see more restaurants redefining the boundary between indoors and out. In the long run, restaurants will have to be adaptable, with seating plans that expand and contract easily and quickly, providing a great experience in every format.”
Of course, New York restaurants are not the only ones to take advantage of previously unused outdoor space. In Rome, the Michelin-starred Imàgo restaurant in the iconic Hassler Hotel has relocated from its indoor space to the terrace of a seventh-floor suite for the duration of the summer. “Since the hotel is still closed, it’s easier and possible to use the suite’s terrace,” the hotel’s owner and managing director Roberto Wirth tells AD. “Furthermore, I made this decision to guarantee more security for our guests and our staff. It’s really a great gift to my guests: a Michelin-starred dinner under the stars, with the beauty of the great Rome under your feet.”
Other Ways of Ensuring Social Distancing
The use of mannequins and stuffed animals to ensure social distancing isn’t likely to become permanent, but has become a temporary fix for restaurants like The Inn at Little Washington—where mannequins donning 1940s garb occupy half the tables—and Maison Saigon in Bangkok, where stuffed pandas ensure people don’t sit too close together. And the plexiglass barriers some restaurants have installed between tables will likely disappear when COVID-19 is no longer deemed a threat.
But one restaurant in Amsterdam created a solution so appealing that it might just stick around. Mediamatic Foundation’s Eten restaurant installed a series of mini greenhouses along the side of a canal that allow couples and small groups of up to four people to dine without being exposed to other guests. In the evening, they seem to glow, creating a romantic atmosphere that guests can appreciate regardless of COVID-19.
With the heightened need to disinfect surfaces, many restaurants are doing away with traditional tabletop decor such as candles, lamps, flowers, tablecloths, and menus that would need to be cleaned between seatings. At Oro Bistrot by Natale Giunta, the rooftop restaurant at the NH Collection Fori Imperiali in Rome, guests are seated at bare tables with QR codes that allow them to load the menus directly on their smartphones—an innovation that has already become rather commonplace around the globe.
Grupo Gitano—which runs six boho-chic restaurant-bars—is also going contactless. “We are making many creative changes at all of our locations in Tulum, Miami, and NYC—there will be electronic waiting lists with QR codes, and QR codes at every table to allow diners to order and pay for food and cocktails by smartphone,” James Gardner, founder and owner of Grupo Gitano, told Food & Wine. According to Forbes, QR codes are popping up all over the place in response to the pandemic. We can likely expect to see more forms of contactless ordering and payment in the future.
More Takeout and Flexible Options
Until there’s a vaccine, takeout is still the safest bet—for both restaurant workers and consumers. Many restaurants that did not previously offer takeout or delivery began doing so during the lockdowns, and some bars started offering cocktails to go. Matsuhisa Munich—Nobu’s Peruvian nikkei restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental Munich—took delivery to the next level, introducing the Matsuhisa sushi truck, which is available for catering private celebrations and events.
There’s also a trend toward offering more casual, flexible dining options at a variety of sit-down and even fine dining establishments. Brooklyn chef Greg Baxtrom, for example, just launched Olmsted Summer Camp, which offers Baxtrom’s take on American summer classics served in Olmsted’s backyard with bigger portions than diners would find at the restaurant. This is in addition to Olmsted Trading Post, which has been selling farmers market veggies, homemade ice cream, baked goods, jams, and specialty items like duck pastrami and yuzu kosho butter since mid-June. Amass in Copenhagen, an avant-garde restaurant with a focus on sustainability run by Noma alum Matt Orlando, recently decided to devote half its dining space to Amass Fried Chicken & Wine, which serves more approachable food at a lower price point.
Whether these changes will last remains to be seen. The coronavirus pandemic—and the economic havoc it’s wreaking on the restaurant industry—will result in some restaurants closing while others rush to adapt. As restaurateurs and designers rise to face these new challenges, hopefully they’ll re-examine aspects of the restaurant industry that will improve the experience for staff and guests alike.
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest