What restaurants (and customers) are doing right—and wrong—during the pandemic.
Restaurants in Greater Boston and elsewhere in Massachusetts have been open for both outdoor and indoor dining for a few months now, and overall, things seem to have been going rather smoothly. And while many folks have continued to opt for takeout and/or delivery rather than actually dine at restaurants, I’ve gone to a number of places in the region with a handful of companions, observing the lay of the land in our food travels.
As you might expect, we’ve witnessed some good practices both on the restaurant side and the customer side during the pandemic, while also seeing some not-so-good (and at-times some truly ugly) things as well. What follows are a few highlights—and lowlights as well.
Contactless menus via QR codes
Remember those weird little squares that were supposed to be the next big thing several years ago but never really seemed to take off? Well, guess what—they’re back, and countless restaurants now have them at tables where diners scan them to bring up food and drink menus. One minor quibble is that some dining spots are sending people to menus on Google Drive or Dropbox, which doesn’t always work depending on security/phone settings. Other than that, the concept is a simple but rather brilliant one.
There had been chatter early on that Mass might require restaurants to record the names and phone numbers of all customers who walk into their businesses, and while that never happened, a number of dining spots are indeed having patrons give their contact information just in case a worker or diner ends up testing positive for the coronavirus. It only takes seconds to do, and it certainly seems like an important step to take.
A variety of dine-in restaurants and takeout spots have set up windows where customers pick up their orders, and in some cases, places that have traditionally focused on seated service have completely shut down their indoor areas, turning themselves into takeout restaurants of sorts. And while not quite as contactless as curbside pickup or delivery, the windows make a lot of sense in a world of social distancing, and can also allow for outdoor patio dining with relatively little risk involved.
Owners/managers who make rounds
This is a bit of an “evergreen” topic, as it’s good practice in general for people running restaurants to check in on diners to make sure everything is going well. But in the pandemic area, that extra human touch—while staying socially distanced—seems even more important, showing that a business really cares about customers and can still bring a bit of sorely-needed communication into the mix.
Diners who wear masks even after they’re seated
At the present time, the rules in Mass require that diners wear masks only until they are seated, but some patrons are going one step further by wearing their masks right up to the time that their drinks/food arrive (and sometimes even beyond that, when the servers come over to check on them). In addition to helping keep servers safe, this is also seen as the ultimate in selfless, caring behavior, and restaurant workers most definitely appreciate it.
Live outdoor music
It is no secret that musicians are hurting more than nearly anyone else these days, as music clubs and bars with no food remain shuttered for the foreseeable future. All things considered, restaurants that feature live music on patios are really stepping up to help singers and bands while at the same time bringing people into spots, which ultimately helps them too. This might not last much longer with the cold weather approaching, but for now it’s great to see (and hear) musicians playing in front of live audiences.
Inexpensive options added to otherwise upscale menus
With so many people struggling financially because of the pandemic, it seems to be a very smart move for higher-end restaurants to offer items such as sandwiches, flatbread pizza, pasta dishes, burritos, and other relatively cheap eats. It also helps the restaurants that do this, as people who might otherwise not have gone to such places could get introduced to and perhaps even continue frequenting these places in the future.
This, unfortunately, is happening in a few places, even after restaurants in parts of Boston were warned about social distancing issues. Most restaurants are spacing tables correctly, and in some cases spacing them much farther apart than required, but some are not, and for those whose patios are out front in plain sight, they really need to be careful, because you never know who might be passing by (i.e. municipal officials).
Social media ineptitude
More of a frustration than anything, it can be annoying to have to spend time trying to find out when a restaurant is open or what they might have on their menu if their last Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter posts are from 2018 and they aren’t answering their phones—and especially if their websites seem like they might have last been updated in pre-pandemic days. Social media is free and easy to use, so it seems like a no-brainer for dining spots to keep up with this.
Diners wandering around without masks
It’s easy to forget about your mask when you’re at a restaurant, so walking to the bathroom or outside for a smoke while forgetting the mask is kind of understandable in a way. It’s still something that can put people at risk, however, so walking around without a mask—which we’ve seen quite a bit of, actually—is something that really shouldn’t be happening.
Low (or no) tipping
While not always seen by the public, restaurant owners and workers have noted this on social media and via personal messages, saying that diners sometimes give little or no money for a tip—especially when takeout food is involved. Early on, when the pandemic was surging and takeout and delivery were the only options, a good rule of thumb was to give 20% at the very least in all cases, and that still seems to be a solid starting figure to consider when tipping.
Another issue that is commonly brought up on social media and also via messages from restaurant owners/workers, this is a real head-scratcher, considering how much dining spots are hurting as the pandemic continues. Making a reservation to a restaurant only to never show up and not even call to explain why seems like the ultimate in selfishness, and some places are fighting back by requiring credit card info when reservations are made and charging cancellation fees or even charging in full for fixed-price meals. This gets a bit sticky when it’s outdoor dining and the weather is bad, but in general, no-shows without any explanation can be a big problem for restaurants, especially right now.
Let’s face it—masks can definitely be annoying, and working in a hot and stuffy restaurant can make them intolerable after a while. Having said that, if you’re bringing food to a table full of customers and your mask is down off your nose—or even worse, off completely—this is a big, big issue, and once again, the restaurant risks getting in trouble if someone in a place of power happens to see it. This has been observed a few times over the past several weeks, and in addition to being risky to everyone during a pandemic, it also might keep diners from returning to the restaurant out of disgust, so it makes bad business sense if an owner or manager allows it.
Another to put in the “not a good idea” category, this has been seen at a few places and the obvious issue is that after a few pops, people tend to let their guard down a bit and start to do high-fives, hugs, and other things that aren’t really considered social distancing. Workers really need to keep an eye out for this, including getting a feel for whether someone has already been boozing it up before arriving at their place, which is tricky of course, but vigilance is really important here.
Marc is the founder of @hiddenboston, a textbook editor, a hike leader for @AppMtnClub, and a food and travel writer and commenter for DigBoston, NBC/NECN, WBZ, WMFO and indie617.