Nothing could make me happier than to have been right last year about how vibrantly the American restaurant industry, from fast food to fine dining, would rebound as the pandemic allows them to reopen at 100% capacity. These restaurateurs have struggled mightily to stay afloat and their staff to handle everything from child care to meeting the rent.
There’s no question that the federal assistance programs, which allowed businesses to apply for up to $10 million through the American Rescue Plan’s $2.8 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund, was critical in keeping the industry from imploding, and the dire predictions by some analysts about 70% of America’s restaurants closing permanently proved to be nonsense. Many have, but in any year a good percentage of restaurants close for myriad reasons that had nothing to do with Covid.
People are desperate to eat out and are flocking to every kind of restaurant, from taquerias to trattorias, from bistros to fine dining, and scores of new restaurants are opening every day across the country. New York magazine just published a guide to 66 of the best new restaurants in the city, and the Washington Post had a similar article on the city’s current bounty of restaurants.
That said, there are still some varying health rules in place, and we are not yet back to the old normal, if we ever do get there. So, anyone who criticizes a restaurant for not being quite what it used to be—yet—should cut it a good deal of slack. Not long ago, I went to a favorite steakhouse in New York to find its luxurious dining room empty because they were only using an upstairs outdoor section without anything close to the downstairs ambiance. They also had an abbreviated menu, took off items they could not afford to waste and made do with a smaller, not-so-skilled staff. Here, then, are some reasons to expect the best they can provide right now even it’s not yet quite up to snuff:
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• Getting staff is extremely difficult for restaurants. The reasons are many, not least that many waiters, busboys and dishwashers are making as much or more from unemployment benefits than the minimum wage they might have been paid. They have the upper hand now in hiring. At one noted New York restaurant, the owner paid to have a former dishwasher fly from the Dominican Republic to work at his place again and at a higher salary. Everyone else on the staff was new. Therefore, do not expect that your favorite server is still there or that any of the new ones have much training just yet.
• Expect abbreviated menus. With so many restaurants still at less than 100% capacity (many because they cannot get sufficient staff), they have to maximize their buying of food they know will sell well. Special purchases can be an iffy proposition if only three people order the sweetbreads that the chef bought ten portions of. Your old favorites will probably still be on the menu, though.
• Wine lists may offer bargains. During the pandemic restaurateurs ordered next to no new wine, and many sommeliers and beverage directors were laid off and not re-hired as essential to running the business. So, restaurants have to move the wines that have been lying in their storage quickly, especially white wines that do not age as do most reds. This means there will be bargains galore. If there is no longer a wine advisor, don’t blame the new waiter for not knowing the distinction between two Puligny-Montrachet Burgundies put on the list five years ago.
• Amenities may be fewer. Those abundant bread baskets with big slabs of butter may be gone, largely because so much of it has, by law, to be thrown away because of possible contamination by someone at a table. Items like fresh flowers, salt and pepper shakers (which, sadly, get frequently stolen) and cloth napkins and tablecloths (which is a big laundry expense) may all be gone. The wine glasses may not be of the quality they once were.
• Expect prices to rise. Aside from the loss of income restaurateurs endured for the past year, food prices have gone inexorably up, not least beef, which, believe it or not, is not a high-profit item in a steakhouse charging $50 for a ribeye. So, menu prices have to reflect those increases; they’re not trying to gouge you.
• Tip at least what you did before. If 15% is still the reasonable average for a tip at a good restaurant and 20% for very good service, you might now consider 20% (before taxes) as a generous but reasonable tip for people who have been so long out of work. In most major cities in America 20% has become pretty much the average anyway.
• Don’t fuss about wearing a mask. I hate the masks. Everyone hates the masks. And many of us who have the full vaccinations need not worry much about infections at a dinner table. Still, because of conflicting municipal requirements, guests still need to have their temperature taken and to wear a mask, even if only to traverse the ten feet from the host desk to your table. And I’ve found that if you’ve neglected to bring a mask, they have an ample supply.