Commentary: Is it worth dining out at restaurants right now?

As someone who writes about restaurants and the people behind them, someone who has tried over the last 10 months to shine a light on their hardships, I am the last person who should say this: I don’t feel it’s worth eating out anymore.

Until very recently, I’ve been championing the exact message I’ve turned against. And yet, I’ve come to resent that diners are expected to keep restaurants afloat in the pandemic.

To be clear: I love restaurants. (I’ve even fallen in love in restaurants.) At their best, they bring people together, fuel conversation and inspire connection while providing us with memorable meals. But over the last 10 months, restaurants have largely been stripped of the sense of community that brings us such joy when dining out.

There have been special moments, to be sure, of creative hospitality and overwhelming kindness. Some businesses have the means to build yurts and tents for those with the means to dine in them. But I’ve found those examples outnumbered by hollow meals, inconsistent takeout at dining-room prices and hurried — or worse, unsafe — dine-in experiences.

Things would be different if the dining public weren’t also facing an economic crisis with compounding bills and mounting unemployment. But here we are, businesses and customers, all in our own precarious positions and all being asked together to shoulder a burden better carried by our national government. Or better yet, by the insurance companies.

A month or so ago, I was still excited to patronize a favorite local restaurant that had just opened another location near my neighborhood. I saw an opening special promoted on social media, so I called to place my to-go order.

By the time we were eating dinner, my date and I had spent double what we bargained for and had received half the amount (and half the quality) that we expected. Sure, it was likely a combination of poor timing on our part and miscommunication among the staff. But sushi just wasn’t made for takeout, and the same is sadly true of so many dishes.

After the first shutdown in the spring, restaurateur Jeff Osaka saw the writing on the wall as he announced he was closing his flagship, sit-down dinner spot, [email protected] “I know we could have tried,” he said. “The new buzzword is ‘pivot.’ But I think it would have lost its integrity as a restaurant.”

No part of this terrible situation is a small business’ fault, either. Yes, they could work on inconsistent service or disparities in food quality. But various levels of government have asked restaurant owners and workers over and over again to close, reopen, change guidelines, update procedures, shift operating hours and overhaul entire business models — not to mention break their employees’ hearts and bank accounts, fire, rehire, train and keep going.

If any industry is capable of this kind of madness, it’s hospitality. But the people inside must be stuck in some cycle of trauma. Now add to that the endless task of pleasing reticent customers.

“I don’t understand how any of us are considering taking on additional debt for an industry that’s teetering on the brink of full-on collapse,” Bar Helix owner Kendra Anderson told me by the end of the summer. “I think what’s hard for a lot of restaurateurs to acknowledge is how much of our egos are wrapped up in our business. I’m not a magical thinker, you know?” Bar Helix closed indefinitely after the summer.

Around the holidays, two friends and I went to check out another place that had received Five Star certification in order to serve diners safely. We planned to splurge for the night, knowing it was a special occasion. (To give you an idea of the extravagance, we ordered paired wines with each course.) At 8:55 p.m., and with a half-dozen half-glasses scattered around, the server came over to tell us we had 5 minutes left before last call, and also before they would clear all of the alcohol from our table.

We paid for the whole experience, and yet we couldn’t even finish it. And I know that this business, like so many others, takes customers more seriously than ever. The owners likely would be heartbroken to know about our dissatisfaction, so I try to remind myself that I used to go out and pay for a dining experience. Now I’m offering a down payment.

Following the reopening of restaurants this month at 25% indoor capacity, one friend and I ventured one last time to another new neighborhood spot to see how it was faring. I have to admit I went in unsure of the safety of dining indoors, but what resulted over 90 minutes was anything but reassuring. Tables in the cozy space couldn’t have been spaced 6 feet apart to begin with, and by the time we left, the best word I can use to describe the room was teeming.

“Could we get the rest of our meal to go?” I asked a server in a hurry. “It feels pretty crowded.”

Plenty of restaurant owners will tell you that those who don’t follow the rules ruin it for everyone. And I feel for them. But I’ve had mediocre or worse to-go food from great chefs on multiple occasions. (The quality seems to get lost in transit. But how likely are customers to return after a bad experience?) I’ve been rushed through a meal at a special-occasion dinner that cost the equivalent of $130 per hour. And I’ve been scared off by more than one business based on its lack of coronavirus precautions.

I’ve also been regularly humbled. When Linda Hampsten Fox decided to reopen The Bindery indoors after the latest easing of restrictions, I could feel the weight of her decision: “I am afraid this shift in public safety levels does not reflect what is happening in the hospitals, or that it is coming too soon or even sending the wrong message, no matter how difficult that is on my own business,” she told me.

As recently as last month, health experts on Gov. Jared Polis’ Colorado COVID-19 Modeling Team told us that restaurants should stay closed to indoor dining, as painful as it is economically. This warning came even before the new, 50%-more-contagious COVID-19 variant was found in the state on Dec. 29.

The next day Polis announced that all counties at Level Red restrictions would be moved to Level Orange in the new year, allowing indoor dining again. (After a spike in cases, Pitkin County is the first to move back to Level Red on Jan. 17.) Thus the cycle continues.

Imagine if restaurant owners weren’t forced to make this call: Endanger yourselves, your staff and your customers or else face financial ruin.

Imagine if they had the support to close down completely, at least until their workers could get vaccinated, or until health officials deemed it safe to reopen. If small businesses had real rent relief in addition to Paycheck Protection. If their teams could choose to stay home and healthy or else to open up for takeout, perhaps with the primary goal of nourishing other essential workers or those experiencing hunger and homelessness.

There was a brief time at the beginning of the pandemic when a shared imperative and private funding allowed for this kind of community thinking. Now, everyone is just exhausted, in a cycle of doomed repetition. So it’s time for the federal government to step up, make the closing call, pass further legislation and give these businesses a break while getting some control over the virus. That way, restaurants won’t just be struggling for the sake of the privileged dining public and, worse yet, for the critics.

Addressing the nation with his stimulus plan Thursday evening, President-elect Joe Biden spoke of rampant food insecurity across the country. “We’ll help hard-hit restaurants prepare meals for the hungry, provide food for the families who need it,” he said. And with that prospect, I suppose I can continue to perpetuate the easier message a while longer: Do my part, spend what I can at a smaller number of trusted businesses, and dine with the hope that someday, once again, I’ll be able to truly enjoy it.

Continue the conversation: Have another view on the role of restaurants in the pandemic? Share your thoughts with us in the comments or over email.

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