Hand-Washing Stations, Temperature Checks, QR Codes: A Dispatch From Inside 3 Reopened Restaurants

From The Washington Post

The easiest job for a food critic? Assembling table mates. Even when I tell people I’m not responsible for how the night might turn out, the siren call of a meal paid by someone else is hard to say no to. Only twice in two decades have I had a problem getting people to help me eat my way through a menu.

Before Anthony S. Fauci became a household name, it was when I first reviewed the exclusive Sushi Nakazawa, a branch of a four-star draw in New York that is linked to the Trump International hotel.

Since then, a pandemic has winnowed my usual field of dining companions to a handful of longtime friends. I can understand the trepidation, since the invitation has switched from “Takeout tonight?” to “How would you like to join me for dinner inside?” now that the District, Maryland and Virginia are all in or past Phase 2 of reopening the economy, meaning a percentage of restaurant dining rooms can be occupied.

To get a sense of what it feels like to eat out right now, I visited three area restaurants for a pulse check. While I was eager to order off a printed menu and eat from plates rather than cartons, I also couldn’t help but feel like a canary in a coal mine.

For as long as I've been eating in them, the Great American Restaurants, more than a dozen full-service dining rooms strong, have lived up to the promise of the Northern Virginia company's name. Service with a smile. Food that's familiar and fresh. Walking up to the entrance of the seafood-themed Coastal Flats in Tysons Corner Center is thus a bit of a surprise. A greeter with a clipboard asks to check my name off a list of reservation holders before she unclips a chain separating shopping mall from restaurant. And the host stand is blocked by rocking chairs turned toward the podium — not exactly an invitation to rest a spell before heading to your seat.

The dining room is vast, but 70 percent of the 250 or so seats are occupied by the restaurant’s recently decommissioned tall plastic menus. They stand sentinel on the table tops, blocking anyone from settling in. Paper menus, part of the new normal, alight. The server details the catch of the day, which we have him repeat. Masks stand in the way of easy communication as well as viruses.

Inside at least, Coastal Flats wants you to forget what ails you. (The list can be a long one these days.) The colorful pendant lights suggest the tails of fireworks, and the multiple murals capture relaxed beach and boating scenes. There are no windows, at least to the outside. For old time’s sake, we order the spiky seafood fritters and the fish special. My glasses fog up as I place my order. As soon as the waiter leaves, I take off my mask. Now it feels normal.

Well, at least until my gaze settles on the open kitchen, animated by masked cooks who resemble surgeons in an operating theater. A manager drops by with our wine, and I ask him how it feels to be back in action. He tells me he’s glad to see less of the kitchen’s food exit in takeout boxes but dismayed at having to tell his staff to basically unlearn so many of the family-run group’s fine points. “It’s not normal for us.” Company policy now asks managers and others to step back, “as if startled,” when customers broach their personal space and to remind customers to wear their masks if they move about the dining room, says CEO Jon Norton.

For the first three months of the pandemic, Coastal Flats operated as a community kitchen, serving 100,000 free meals to food shelters, first responders and staff. (The company has been able to rehire 1,200 of its original 1,700 employees.) The house-baked rolls are no longer free, but there’s no complaining when Norton says his restaurants are charging a dollar for four and the buck is going toward food security.

“Are you done with your menu?” the manager asks. I nod, and he crumples the list in his hand, so no other diner comes in contact with it.

Hard to believe, but it wasn’t until five years ago that the company relented and introduced takeout. Before, says Norton, the rationale was “our food is high-maintenance and doesn’t travel well.”

I pay my bill with a credit card that everyone touches as if it’s a butterfly wing, and I’m comforted to know the company policy is to wipe down the restaurant’s high-touch surfaces every 30 minutes. “We have a timer,” the manager says reassuringly. (Waiters are instructed to wash their hands each time they handle a credit card.)