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Glass partitions and spirit bottles at El Agave

Restaurant dining is back, in a limited fashion

El Agave's dining room, adorned with agave spirit bottles and glass partitions between diners
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?

Place

El Agave

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.

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El Agave's dining room, adorned with agave spirit bottles and glass partitions between diners
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?

Place

El Agave

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.

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4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
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