There is an unofficial ritual that happens at our restaurant, All Time, every day at 4:30 p.m. “Will anyone have coffee?” someone asks the mostly empty dining room. We brew a fresh pot, the lights dim, and the sky shifts to warm hues of pink and yellow. There is a shuffling of tables and the crashing of ice over wine bottles. A host’s heels click across the checkered floor, and the phone rings, aggressively. At 4:59, either “These Days” or “Doctor My Eyes” will play because we always start the night with a Jackson Browne song.
Coffee in hand, I am suspended between night and day. I make last-minute menu changes, light the dining-room candles, debate eating a cookie, attempt to chart the coming night’s mayhem, give in to the cookie, and begin service.
Thinking back fills me with deep longing. These days at 4:30 p.m., the lights remain bright, the servers aren’t around, and we just staple tickets to paper bags. Our cooks slide food into boxes to be eaten elsewhere.
We are in Los Angeles. Parts of California are reopening, not just patios but now even indoor dining rooms. We’ll have the green light soon. Many people expect us to jump at the chance, to ditch the temporary takeout setup, and to welcome our guests back. The phone is ringing with reservation requests — and it’s going to be a while until we open again.
There are the obvious deterrents: Spacing tables eight feet apart on our 400-square-foot patio at a 50 percent reduction in capacity isn’t financially viable. The risk to our staff would rise considerably, and we have major work to do to rewire the restaurant for yet another new structure. But those reasons are not our main motivation to hold off on sit-down service. We made a promise to our staff, to our guests, and to one another: to provide nourishment that encompasses more than just food. Protecting the mental and physical health of our team is part of that, but there’s more. Being “allowed” to reopen does not address the gaping divide between the stunted service we could offer and the nurturing service that defines us.
I would argue that we miss service more than you do. At our restaurant in the best of times, Kelsey would probably let you know about a new band. Jessica would raise a glass with you to toast your good news. Brion could get you a table at some new Japanese restaurant you didn’t even know existed. Meaningful hospitality relies on generosity and openness; those connections are how we draw meaning from our work.
All of us — servers, runners, hosts, managers, owners — are part of your experience. We know your birthdays, your food allergies, how you like your coffee. Our work is to intuit your needs or to introduce you to your new favorite wine. Our purpose is to create a space where we can see one another.
Now, though, our smiles are invisible. Handshakes and hugs are out of the question. Even kneeling down next to a table to feel closer, to convey that we care, couldn’t happen. Masks and face shields aren’t just personal protection. They prevent us from tasting what you taste or having normal conversation. They create a barrier between us and you that’s both physical and emotional. They also send a signal: We are the help, we are peripheral. But if we aren’t laughing and having a good time, our guests likely won’t be either.
That’s not to say that every interaction with every table has to be profound or that everyone even wants to be taken on some journey. But when you eliminate the very possibility for connection, it reduces our work to a transaction. It’s just focaccia for money, nothing more.
In thinking about reopening, I ask myself, What are we willing to give up? How much can we sterilize an experience without killing it? I don’t judge those who do reopen — our entire industry is flailing to survive — but I also won’t be complicit in further distancing myself and our staff from the essence of what we do.
I know we are luckier than most. We’ve been able to keep our business afloat with takeout and delivery when many — most — of our colleagues and friends have not. We’ve been graced with the unwavering support of a loyal community that has spent very precious dollars with us. But it’s more than luck. It’s an extension of the values we share; it reflects the fact that we are in a relationship with you. So it’s also our responsibility to reciprocate that generosity when we can do it wholly. And joyously.
Until it’s safe to huddle at the pass to try a dish, to bump into each other while we squeeze between table three and table eight, or to have a disastrous night and then share family meal, we’re holding off on reopening. Until then, I’ll still be longing for my 4:30 ritual, forced to enjoy the quiet when the chaos doesn’t arrive.
Ashley B. Wells owns and operates All Time restaurant with her husband, Tyler.