Everything You Need to Know About Eating in Restaurants Right Now

The world keeps changing. So do dining rooms.

Embracing new norms at Pastis. Photo: Dina Litovsky
A woman sensually eating a single French fry at the restaurant Pastis
Embracing new norms at Pastis. Photo: Dina Litovsky
A woman sensually eating a single French fry at the restaurant Pastis
Embracing new norms at Pastis. Photo: Dina Litovsky

Even if restaurants are fundamentally the same places they’ve always been — you sit, you eat, you pay — the pandemic altered much about the logistics of dining out in New York City. As more of us emerge from relative hibernation after a year-plus of avoiding most public places, we have to get acclimated to our new world. What does that mean exactly? Grub Street is so happy you asked because we’ve continued talking to experts to get their advice on the things you need to do when you dine out right now. We first ran a version of this story back in April, but so much has changed since then that we’ve gone through and updated it all with the latest information. Here, what you need to know right now.

Are restaurants back to normal?
New York City restaurants are as close to their pre-pandemic state as they’ve been since all this started. In theory, restaurants are once again allowed to operate indoors at 100 percent capacity (as long as they put up barriers or leave six feet of distance between tables), the midnight curfew has been lifted, bar seating is back, and so-called Cuomo snacks are done. Soon, it will be even more normal: This week, the governor announced that the state’s remaining COVID restrictions will lift as soon as 70 percent of adults have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, a threshold the state could hit any day now.

In practice, though, most restaurants aren’t quite there yet. A lot of places, for example, can’t both operate at full capacity and leave six feet between tables; longtime late-night operators, meanwhile, say they still don’t have the foot traffic — or the staff — to stay open around the clock. And for some restaurateurs, outdoor dining has been so successful that they’re in no rush to reopen their indoor-dining rooms at all.

There are, in fact, no guidelines that will tell you what any given restaurant is doing. This is why, before you leave the house, we recommend you embrace uncertainty. Alternatively, Google it or call.

What about masks? I’m fully vaccinated, but I have no idea what the rules are anymore.
It’s confusing! For restaurants, as for most businesses, New York State has adopted the CDC’s “Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People,” which says that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks outside or inside.

Individual restaurants, though, can still set their own mask policies, and from what we’ve seen, the vast majority still require diners to mask up before going inside. This happens to be consistent with guidance from the NYS Department of Health, which “strongly recommends masks in indoor settings where the vaccination status of individuals is unknown.” And even if it weren’t, you should wear a mask if a sign on the door tells you to, because when you go to a restaurant, you follow its rules.

What if there’s no sign on the door, though?
In New York City, you should wear a mask when you’re going inside a restaurant. Vaccines work, but the thing is nobody knows for sure that you’re vaccinated — more than one-third of the city’s adults still aren’t — and so for now, if you’re going inside, however briefly, wear the mask. Amita Sudhir, a professor of medicine at the University of Virginia and frequent contributor to Slate, says at this point, she isn’t wearing a mask (purely) for safety purposes. Instead, “I’m doing it to make other people feel more comfortable. And I hope that soon, that won’t be necessary anymore.”

Okay, that’s fair. But what if I’m eating outside?
The risk of outdoor transmission is very, very low. The risk of outdoor transmission among vaccinated people is even lower. But if you’re having an extended interaction with someone working — you’re walking to your table or you’re ordering — you should, for now, “keep that mask on,” advises Haley Traub, general manager at Attaboy.

And if someone comes over to refill my water very quickly?
A few months ago, we said yes, it’s a kindness, it’s a gesture, and you should try. But at this point, you can start to let it go. “I’m not thinking about it anymore, to be honest,” says one server at a Bushwick pizzeria who has stopped worrying about masking for quickie mid-meal drop-offs. Kelly Sullivan, a bartender at an outdoor cocktail spot in Prospect Heights and co-host of the FOH podcast, agrees. Whatever you want to do is genuinely fine with her: “It’s so normal not to have the mask on outside now. I’m like, Okay, there’s a context for not putting it on. I don’t resent you.

But here’s the thing: Nobody will be upset if you still try to throw on a mask — even if it’s ultimately just a courtesy. “I just feel like I want to demonstrate to the employees that I care about them because they don’t know if I’m vaccinated or not, right?” says Wafaa El-Sadr, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, who still tries to mask up as much as possible. “It’s an honor system, I know, but I want to demonstrate to them in little things I can do — I do care about them.”

That’s pretty wishy-washy! Do I need to wear a mask or not?
Right now, the answer is: Both! People are reemerging from a year in hiding at different rates, with different levels of risk tolerance, and part of the challenge now is figuring out how to deal with that. Results, so far, are mixed. “I really want us to go back to a more normal life,” says Sudhir, the UVA professor. “And I think part of the process is letting people do it at their own pace. If that means that occasionally I have to wear a mask when I normally wouldn’t, then I don’t mind doing it.”

Okay, but why can’t I just go to a restaurant where everyone is vaccinated and not worry about any of this?
There are definitely some bars and restaurants that are asking customers for proof of vaccination, whether that’s actually checking vaccination cards or New York’s state-issued Excelsior Passes or just using the honor system.

Still, the New York Times reports that so far, the “vast majority of businesses” aren’t checking vaxx status, so for now, it is safest to assume most dining experiences, indoor or outdoor, could involve people who are vaccinated as well as those who aren’t.

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. “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,’” she 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 there is 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. 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 your family?”

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 eat inside a restaurant, it might not. The more necessary contact 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.” If you’re going to do it, though, the safest option, as always, is to eat outside.

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.
We are all navigating this weird semi-post-pandemic landscape together, and everyone is (mostly) 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’ve heard restaurant owners are having a hard time hiring people. Can I leave a bad review if my service is … let’s say “underwhelming”?
This is a good time to practice “rolling with it.” Many restaurants are understaffed, and a lot of service staff who are working are new, and as a result, maybe service won’t be maximally elegant. Maybe it’ll be a little slow. Most places are operating with limited resources, so the big thing is 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 I speak to the manager?’ meme, but 1,000 percent I would rather someone ask to speak to a manager and have a conversation about their experience than leave a bad review.”

Can I go back to tipping a “normal” amount?
Assuming “normal” is 20 percent, minimum, sure. If you can go up a little, please do — things are still a little rocky for hospitality workers, so it’s a good idea to remain as generous as possible with your tips.

“I don’t think you need to go crazy,” says Lillian DeVane, a longtime bartender and Sullivan’s co-host on the FOH podcast. “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.”

I don’t want to be crass, but I bought a lot of restaurant gift cards during the pandemic. Is it too soon to use them?
To field this one, we turned to David Stockwell, the owner of Faun in Prospect Heights. “I think it shows a lot of sensitivity if you simply ask the restaurant,” he suggests, promising it won’t be weird. “I do feel like it’s proper etiquette to at least raise the question: ‘Hey, I know you guys are recovering. Is this a good time to do this? Or would you request we wait?’” At Faun, he’s fine with gift cards, personally — business has picked up in recent months — but he’s aware he’s been extremely lucky and that not everybody is in the same situation. You aren’t wrong to want to use a gift card (you paid for it!), but if you can afford to accept the answer, why not ask? It’s a nice and humane thing to do, he argues, and, in our experience, you’ll enjoy your meal more if you know that nobody resents you.

Is this “the new normal”?
Probably not, but nobody knows what the new normal 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 to being in public 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?

Everything to Know About Eating in Restaurants Right Now