reopening

Everything You Need to Know About Eating in Restaurants Right Now

The world has changed. So have dining rooms.

Illustration: by Grub Street; Photos by Getty
Illustration: by Grub Street; Photos by Getty
Illustration: by Grub Street; Photos by Getty

Even if restaurants are fundamentally the same places they’ve always been — you sit, you eat, you pay — the pandemic has altered so much about the logistics of dining out in New York City. Nobody knows when, or even if, things will return to the way they were, but as more of us start to emerge from relative hibernation after a year-plus of avoiding most public places, we’ll have to get acclimated to our new world. What does that mean, exactly? Grub Street is so happy you asked, because we talked to experts to get their advice on the things you need to do when you dine out right now.

Are restaurants back to normal yet?
No. Right now, New York City restaurants are operating at 50 percent capacity indoors. As a diner, you’ll have your temperature checked at the door, and at least one person from your party will have to sign in with their contact information for tracing, in case there’s an outbreak later.

There’s also a state-mandated limit of ten people per party, and a midnight curfew for all restaurants and bars.

If you haven’t been out in the last year, brace yourself for a few other changes, too: A lot of restaurants use QR codes for ordering, and many have placed time limits on the tables, usually 90 minutes, to help them turn enough tables to stay afloat. And more restaurants and upscale bars are requiring reservations these days, so it’s worth doing a quick Google search before heading out to make sure you’re up to date on the policies. And if you do have a reservation, please be on time.

You can also, of course, choose to eat indoors or outdoors at lots of places, but the rules are the same no matter where you sit.

I got my second dose of Pfizer three weeks ago. Do I still need to wear a mask?
Yes. For one thing, the state of New York mandates it; any time you’re not seated, you should be masked. The CDC now says vaccinated outdoor diners can go unmasked, but even if you are fully vaxxed, you need to take precautions. “Something we need to consider,” says Dr. Anne Liu, a professor and infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, “is that if lots of vaccinated people are mixing with a lot of unvaccinated people in a setting where there’s a lot of virus circulating, then on a public-health level, it actually introduces a selective pressure on virus variants.”

But I don’t have to be super strict about it?
You still need to treat mask-wearing as an absolutely essential part of eating out — even if it feels like things are safer. “It’s getting harder now that more and more people are vaccinated,” says Haley Traub, general manager at Attaboy. “They are thinking it’s not as big of a concern to be wearing a mask, but we’re just very much operating under the guise of, You don’t know me, I don’t know you. Let’s just play it safe.” That means if you’re seated but having an extended conversation with your server, “keep that mask on,” advises Traub. “It’s amazing to me how many people, you bring them to a table, and they’re still standing right by you and they whip their mask off. And I’m just like, Sorry, does this look like a COVID-free zone to you? Am I missing something?

Do I have to put on my mask if someone comes over to refill my water very quickly?
This is more a question of kindness than safety. Scrambling to grab your mask — even when it feels stupid, even when you’re three seconds too late —lets a restaurant’s staff know that you’re at least aware of the danger they face. “It’s the strongest signal of, We’re in it together. I’m thinking about your presence here. I’m thinking about you as a person and not just an abstract entity,” says Kelly Sullivan, a service industry vet and co-host of the podcast FOH.

Can I ask my server if they’ve been vaccinated? I’m genuinely curious!
“It’s such an impulse to be like, We’re all in this together, you’re vaccinated, I’m vaccinated, everyone’s good here!” says Sullivan. But unless you have a preexisting relationship with your server, or they bring it up first, it is still best to avoid asking strangers about their medical histories and preferences.

“I understand that it’s coming from a genuine place, but it feels very invasive to me, personally,” says Traub, who is both very patient and very tired of this question. For example, she says, “You don’t know whether I have a health issue that keeps me from getting vaccinated.” It also makes her wonder: If she says she’s fully vaxxed, will people be less careful around her? “That’s just sort of where my brain jumps to — are you asking about my vaccination status because that makes you think you don’t have to wear a mask around me?”

I would feel a lot more comfortable if I knew everyone working at a particular restaurant was vaccinated, though.
We get it, and some private employers, like restaurants, can (and sometimes do) require their staff to get vaccinated as a matter of workplace safety. The trouble here is that you are a guest, not an employer, and even if you did ask, you’d have no way of ensuring accurate information, and you have no way of knowing the vaccination status of other diners, anyway.

Besides, says Dr. Mercedes Carnethon, vice chair of preventive medicine at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, the greatest risk of indoor dining comes from the people sitting with you at your table, with whom you have prolonged, unmasked contact. Those are likely people you know well enough to ask personal questions.

A friend invited me to grab dinner, but they’re being … weird about the vaccine. How can I tactfully tell them I don’t want to eat in a restaurant with them without sounding like a jerk?
“I think I would most certainly ask questions about where we would be getting dinner, and would likely express a preference for outdoor dining if we could,” advises Carnethon. That’s especially true if you don’t know about the friend’s vaccination status, or know that they haven’t gotten their shots. “I’ll generally try to take responsibility and say, ‘I wouldn’t want to put you at risk, so it’d be my preference that we either get takeout and sit outside, or that we sit outside,’” Carnethon continues. “Generally, rather than asking pointed questions about them, I try to decrease the discomfort of the situation by just suggesting I wouldn’t wish to expose them.”

This would also be a time to invoke your young, social children, if you happen to have any: “That can also be an out: ‘You know, I have to be particularly careful so I don’t do anything that exposes my children, that then puts other other people’s children at risk,’” Carnethon says, since vaccinations for kids are still some ways off.

I do have kids, actually. Can I take them to restaurants?
This is complicated, and, as with so many COVID-era dilemmas, there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer. What we know so far is that kids don’t seem to be major drivers of community spread, but it’s possible for them to spread it, and if they do get sick, their cases tend to be mild, although not always. So the question isn’t really, “Can children go to restaurants?” so much as, “What’s an acceptable level of risk for you?”

In the case of, say, in-person school or day care, the risk-benefit analysis likely comes out strongly in favor of the benefits. In the case of taking your kid to a restaurant, it might not. “There’s certainly a benefit associated with” restaurants, Liu says, “but is it enough that you want to take that risk?”

This isn’t a hypothetical question — really ask yourself if it’s worth the risk. Do your kids go to in-person school with a bunch of other kids? Do they live with high-risk grandparents or infant siblings? The more necessary contacts your children have, the more it makes sense to limit unnecessary exposure. Carnethon, for her part, has another consideration. “It’s not actually fun to take my kids to a restaurant anyhow,” she says. “That’s enough of a reason not to take them.”

What should I expect from a restaurant? I get that the restaurant industry is in a very tough place, but I don’t want to get ripped off.
You’re going to have to be flexible. There is a pandemic, and everyone is still doing their best — even if that doesn’t look quite how it used to. “The one thing that does get on my nerves a little bit is when people ask, ‘Why is the menu so limited now? What happened to this dish you used to serve? What happened to the raw bar?’” says Kyle, a server at a popular restaurant in Brooklyn Heights. “Like, it’s fairly obvious why we’re selling fewer things. We were closed for so long, we don’t have the money to buy all the products that we used to have, and we don’t have the money to hire the staff that’s needed to put all these things on the menu and have it properly prepped and ready for service.”

I know it’s been unbelievably difficult for a lot of restaurant workers. Should I ask them about it?
You should not. It can conjure up unpleasant thoughts for the staff, who are, remember, just trying to get through a day at work. “No one wants to think about their mortality while they’re serving you carpaccio,” says Lillian DeVane, a longtime bartender and Sullivan’s co-host on the FOH podcast. “We think about our mortality at 2 a.m. when we’re having shift drinks.” The relationship between diner and server is “a very specific, unique, intimate thing,” she concedes, but still, it’s a job. “It’s not a perfect analogy, but it’s like, do you want me to come to your office, hold your paycheck in my hand, and ask you if your mom died? No, that’d be demented.”

What do I do if I see another customer acting like a jerk? Should I say something to them?
It’s probably better if you don’t. “We don’t need a tussle going on,” says Kyle, the Brooklyn Heights server. “Someone from the staff will deal with it in a much more tactful manner.” Ultimately, unless you are witnessing a true crisis, it’s best to let the staff handle it. As Traub points out, “We’ve dealt with much worse than having to tell someone to put their mask on.”

There are, DeVane notes, other ways to show your general support that do not involve direct confrontation. “If I notice the server’s flustered or another table is being obviously rude, sometimes I’ll just be like, ‘Hey, are people being nice to you tonight? Are these people being insane?’ Because it’s casual and kind of cute and puts emphasis on the other diners,” she says. That way, you’re acknowledging the situation, but without the risk of escalation.

I just feel like I want to do more for them?
“People come to the table now with all this guilt and grief,” says DeVane. “And it’s like, chill. Just try to relax.”

Sullivan agrees: “There’s almost this self-flagellating desire to see all these service people as having been coerced back into work. And that’s definitely valid — that’s not not happening. But I also think there are people who do this work and love it and don’t see it as degrading and don’t see it as a sacrifice and are coming back to work because they want to,” she says, counting herself in this camp. You are allowed to experience fun, promises Sullivan. “I’d definitely encourage people to feel a little loose.”

What if I’m lingering at a table just eating an order of fries with my friend? Are we being jerks?
Kyle, the Brooklyn Heights server, feels strongly about this: You should not worry. “There’s nothing wrong with that at all,” he says.

“I don’t want anyone to feel bad about that,” agrees Traub, noting that this is where the time limits come in especially handy. “We can accept, Okay, they’re not big drinkers, but we know they’re out at 7:30.”

The only thing is, she would really appreciate it if small orderers were perhaps “a little more mindful” about the constraints restaurants still have to deal with — which means if you’re going to sit for 90 minutes nursing a single cocktail, you should strongly consider a generous tip.

Since you brought up tips. Now that more people can eat in restaurants, can I go back to tipping 20 percent?
Twenty percent is solid, and nothing to sneeze at — please don’t sneeze at all, actually — but if you can still bump it up at least a little bit, you should. “It’s sort of like hazard pay, in a way,” says Kyle.

“I don’t think you need to go crazy,” DeVane says. “I just think it’s nice to be generous. And at the end of the day, eating out is always a little luxury. Especially after all of this, being alive and being with somebody at a table — that is so special.”

So … like 22 percent? Forty percent?
For the sake of actionable advice, let’s call 20 percent the absolute baseline, and then try to target at least 25 percent. It will pay off. “People don’t realize how much being nice can get you in a restaurant,” DeVane says. “You’re going to love the way you look tipping over 20 percent. We’re gonna be like, ‘Those people were amazing.’ That’s all it takes, literally.”

Speaking of sneezing, my allergies are in rough shape and I’ve got a very stuffy nose. But I know it’s not COVID. Should I still go out?
“We get it, it happens. I’m not gonna throw you out of the bar if you walk in and sneeze,” Traub says. “But be understanding and just take the proper precautions.” So, in addition to considering a pre-meal Zyrtec or a Claritin, that means wear a mask, bring tissues and hand sanitizer, and be self-aware enough to know that you’re sneezing all over the place during a pandemic, so act accordingly. “Honestly,” Traub concludes, “I think a lot of it comes down to optics.”

What if my dinner really sucked? I mean, it was a uniquely bad experience. How mean can I be in my Yelp review?
Please don’t leave a Yelp review.

Fine. I’ll leave a Google review.
Don’t do that, either.

Facebook?
Possibly the worst option of all.

Where can I leave a bad review?
The big thing is, understand, again, that most places are operating with limited resources, so do your best to cut everyone some slack. If you still think something was really, truly wrong with your food or service, just talk to the people who actually work at the restaurant. “I don’t think there is anything wrong with asking to speak to a manager,” Traub says. “I know in our current social-media age, there’s definitely the ‘May speak to the manager?’ meme, but 1,000 percent I would rather someone asked to speak to a manager and have a conversation about their experience than leave a bad review.”

Is it going to be like this forever?
Probably not, but nobody knows what it will be like, so for now, advises Andrew Rigie, of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, “The three most important things are respect, patience, and understanding.” Even if the specific situations have changed, the overarching approach has not: Just be nice!

“Trust that the people who are working in the restaurants know what they’re doing, and they’re guiding you a certain way,” says DeVane. “Just go with it — be a part of that culture and those rules and those boundaries for a few hours.” Everyone will have a better time as a result — and isn’t that really the whole point of leaving the house in the first place?

Restaurant Etiquette for the COVID Era