El Agave's dining room, adorned with agave spirit bottles and glass partitions between diners
There was bound to be some awkwardness. The ‘rona closed restaurant dining rooms more than two months ago, and if the intervening weeks taught us anything, it’s to be leery of human contact. The government may have allowed dine-in service to resume beginning Memorial Day weekend, but that doesn’t automatically make it feel safe. Even with strict protocols regarding service staff hygiene and the space between diners, going back into a restaurant for the first time since the pandemic shut hospitality businesses down can feel like a foray into uncertain landscape. Is it safe to touch our plates? To use the bathroom? Does the waiter realize his mask dropped below his nose?
2304 San Diego Avenue, San Diego
Anxieties aside, reservations proved hard to come by in San Diego, this first weekend back. Attribute some of that to pent-up demand for a night out, but part of it, of course, is reduced capacity. Restaurants physically cannot seat as many diners under the new guidelines for re-opening, so although they may be far from full, per pre-covid numbers, the time slots go fast.
We snared a table at Old Town’s mainstay fine dining Mexican restaurant, El Agave. Take-out and delivery options may have kept us restaurant fans fed during the shutdown, but they could never replace a romantic setting and attentive table service that can make a night out feel special. El Agave deems itself “the largest Tequila museum in the country,” and it’s the gleam of thousands of agave spirit bottles lining the walls that lend the charming atmosphere I sought for a first post-pandemic date.
A Mayan inspired sea bass dish, served in ajo and achiote sauce
A new gleam added to the dining room this night: that reflecting off glass partitions placed between tables. The large glass buffers, positioned roughly three feet to either side of us, at head height (while seated), acted as sort of sneeze guards between us and fellow diners. It’s what allowed us to take off the masks we wore into the restaurant, so that we could eat, drink, and share bites, without concern about the maskless folk six feet to our left and right doing the same.
Stuffed chicken breast in green mole
And so we ordered drinks — wine for her, a tequila mule for me — and talked over plates of sea bass served with a Mayan achiote sauce, and stuffed chicken in mole verde. And it felt mostly normal, the sort of night out we might enjoy during normal times, comparing notes on the food, clinking glasses, to us, to the slow and steady resumption of public life.
Glass partitions used to separate diners in a post-pandemic restaurant
But nothing can help it feeling different. It will be interesting to see how different restaurants find creative ways to host diners again without forsaking too much of what makes the dining experience special and worthwhile. And I certainly intend to find out — after all, I can’t sit here and write about take-out orders forever.
Cocktails in copper mugs: yet another reason to miss dining out
However, maybe for a while it will be a mix of both. Restaurants may have been given the green light to re-open conditionally, but not all of them are taking it. Some remain closed temporarily while they try to navigate the health concerns. Others seem content to stick to take-out and delivery service indefinitely, while news reports suggest the number of covid-19 cases in America continue to rise, even as we take these steps to reconvene.
So, yes, it feels good to be out again, but it hints at the uneasiness many of us will feel in public likely for months to come, counting on masks, and hand sanitizer, and glass partitions to save us.