In Vancouver, COVID-19 almost feels like a distant memory. The beaches are full. Restaurants are bustling. Hardly anyone wears a mask when they’re out and about.
And then you walk into a bar like Chickadee and are reminded that life has not returned to normal – and might never.
This is a good thing because the more habituated we get, the more our defences drop and the more likely we are to do something stupid that could potentially lead to an outbreak.
I know this from experience. After dining and drinking at a dozen restaurants and bars in the past month, I was beginning to feel so comfortable that I broke my own rules of etiquette and made a big gaffe this week when I stopped at another table to chat with people I knew, blocking a narrow passageway while unmasked. Twice.
The dumb thing I did was not at Chickadee. This new reduced-contact cocktail bar in Chinatown from the folks at Juke Fried Chicken is so tightly orchestrated I don’t think anyone could step out of line without being politely reminded of the safety protocols.
I didn’t really understand the concept until I arrived. There had always been a small bar in Juke’s cozy dining room. And the dining room had always been attached to a takeout counter, which made the setup unconventional.
Chickadee has now been sectioned off from the Juke takeout counter and draped in a retro-eighties theme replete with neon signs and a Bowie-inspired lightning bolt on the dividing wall. And the bar now takes reservations, which many restaurants that had previously eschewed them are now being forced to do. (A boon for customers, in my mind.)
But even with its expanded cocktail list and Miami Vice styling, Chickadee seemed more of a rebranding exercise than a new post-COVID concept – until I rocked up to the front door and was greeted outside by a hostess wearing a plastic face shield.
Whoa. I’ve seen a lot of masks being worn by restaurant staff. They come in all shapes, sizes and thicknesses. But this was the first shield I’d seen and the effect was jarring. It’s so much more clinical.
“If you don’t mind,” said bar manager Sabrine Dhaliwal as we were escorted inside, pointing to a pump bottle of hand sanitizer on the edge of the wood.
Every restaurant has hand sanitizer at the front door these days. But in my experience, customers are rarely asked to use it. The same goes for contact information. I’ve walked into several restaurants without being asked for my name or number. (The wording of the provincial health office order on this is a bit vague).
At Chickadee, hand sanitizing and contact information is non-negotiable, as it should be.
“Welcome to Bar Chickadee,” read a paper sign taped to the Plexiglas divider in front of us at the bar counter. (Ours were the only two seats on the wood.) “Please place your order at barchickadee.com. Your table name is Lloyd.”
The tables are all named after bartenders in movies from the 1980s, Ms. Dhaliwal explained from behind her shield on the other side of the Plexiglas, a double barrier that made it very hard to hear her, or for her to hear us.
We all had to repeat ourselves many times over the course of our 60-minute reservation. The time slots are strict. And as it turns out, Lloyd was the creepy bartender from The Shining, which only added to the slightly ominous aura.
But you know what? I didn’t mind a bit. I didn’t mind that I couldn’t hear our bartender because her drinks – especially the exotic Greyscale with its desiccated black-lime garnish – were more complex and delicious than any of the cocktails I’ve been cobbling together at home.
I didn’t mind that we also had to order our chicken and waffles online, or that it was delivered to our bar stool in takeout containers and a paper bag. It was actually better than having it delivered to my home because the food only travelled a few metres from the kitchen and didn’t steam up in an insulated DoorDash bag or lose any of its deep-fried crunchiness.
Was it a more casual experience? Sure. But is it a brilliant business idea? Absolutely. By offering takeout in the dining room, owners Justin Tisdall and Bryan Satterford were able to get up and running with far fewer employees.
Did I mind that we couldn’t mingle or meet other bar patrons? Well, it did make for a different, less social experience. Going out to a bar these days is not the same – or nearly as fun – as it used to be.
And if it takes face shields and paper bags to remind us that we’re living in a new normal, that’s good, too.
Vancouver isn’t Texas or California. The daily cases reported are not going up. But it’s also not Toronto, where restaurants are restricted to patio seating. Most of our dining is taking place indoors where the risks are higher.
The virus is still with us. There have been outbreaks, including one in a fast-food kitchen where the cooks weren’t able to maintain physical distancing. And there will be more, especially now that B.C. has entered Phase 3 and non-essential travel is permitted.
Unfortunately, when reopening restaurants in British Columbia, the industry has been preoccupied with making guests feel comfortable. And it’s working. But this comes at the expense of considering the dangers that we pose.
Bar Chickadee might not be as comfortable or intimate as the bar experiences we remember and love. But it’s good to remember that these are still not normal times. I don’t recommend everyone wear face shields. But the next time I go to the bathroom or move around a restaurant, I’ll wear a mask. And if that makes other people uncomfortable, so be it.
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