Last weekend, I tried to make a last-minute dinner reservation and discovered that the entire city (or a least the four restaurants I tried booking) was sold out. This week, a friend called to complain that he had encountered the same problem – on a Wednesday.
Around the world cites are being hit by, and are learning to cope with, the next wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in varying degrees. Toronto restaurants are closed for indoor dining, New York has reopened, Shanghai is pretty much back to normal, London has a 10 p.m. curfew, Paris is going into a second lockdown and Melbourne is just emerging.
But here in Vancouver, the restaurant scene is bustling, the safety guidelines are clear (though evolving) and the risks posed by dining out are low.
“We’re not seeing … transmission in restaurants, where people are following the safety plans,” Bonnie Henry, B.C.'s Chief Health Officer, said at a news conference this week.
Thus, after a seven-month pause, I’ve decided that it’s time to get back to restaurant reviewing – with new COVID-era criteria, of course.
Why? Because as its core, a restaurant review is a tool to help consumers decide where to spend their hard-earned dollars. And right now, when a night out is even more precious, the choices are often fraught with worry and restaurants are redefining themselves almost overnight, the role of an independent, unbiased critic has never been more essential.
God knows I didn’t feel this way a few months ago, let alone last year, when the restaurant critic appeared to be going the way of the dodo bird and my peers were losing their jobs.
In late May, when B.C. restaurants reopened for dine-in service, the entire industry was incredibly fragile. It didn’t feel right to be judging the degree of leopard-spotting on the underside of a Neapolitan pizza or the attentiveness of a server who was huffing and puffing as she acclimatized to wearing a mask when we were all wondering if the world would collapse and were just so grateful to get out of our homes.
Many restaurants could still implode. But dozens of new restaurants have opened. Owners are spending more money on social-media marketing to lure people in. And the experiences are wildly inconsistent. Restaurant reviewing will require a new, in some ways gentler, approach.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been freaked out by a fellow customer who coughed in my face as he pushed through a crowded, unmonitored passageway; discovered that one of my favourite restaurants has reinvented itself with an entirely new, crazy-rich 20-something clientele (because fine dining is apparently the new nightclub); and devoured one of the most delicious meals all year from a hole-in-the-wall that only just reopened for takeout only.
These are stories that, for better and for worse, deserve to be told.
How to tell those stories and evaluate the experience is a task with which all restaurant critics are struggling.
In Britain, where the critics are delightfully savage, they all rushed back the moment restaurants reopened and don’t appear to give a toss about safety protocols. Some of their reviews read as though nothing has changed.
In the United States, where the critics can be ponderously earnest, many are tying themselves in knots over safety standards (often because there are none) and workplace equity (important, yes, but tricky to navigate without becoming an industry advocate).
I hope to reset my own guidelines and find a balance somewhere in the middle.
Safety protocols will be a top concern because this, I believe, is what most customers really want to know. Beyond the obvious checklist (sanitizer at the front door, space between tables, contact tracing), I’ll be watching to see how restaurants handle the grey zones. Is there congestion around the front door? Are the bathrooms crowded (and being regularly cleaned)? Do those cleaning agents stink to the high heavens? How does staff deal with customers who get up and mingle? Is everyone wearing a mask?
That said, I’m not a health inspector and won’t be monitoring kitchens.
The other major change will be looking at what a restaurant offers outside the standard dining room. If it offers takeout, that will be an essential part of the review. Which dishes travel well, which don’t? Are the meal kits easy to prepare at home? Are there certain dishes and drinks only available at the restaurant – or at grocery stores or from a food truck or on an outdoor patio or in a pop-up dome? Restaurants are no longer defined by what happens between four walls and reviews must encompass the whole experience.
Food and service will require a modicum of kindness. Or a least an understanding that circumstances have changed. Prices have gone up, but value still matters. Service might be slower, but is it slow because employees have called in sick? Or a manager is trying to cuts costs? Or because a chef is so caught up in his own ego that he hasn’t pared down the menu to a more manageable number of dishes than can be easily executed with a slimmed-down kitchen?
The biggest change will be the elimination of the star-rating system – and good riddance. I’ve wanted to shrug off that straitjacket for years. The coronavirus requires a reset for everyone. For me, this is by far the best silver lining. Oh, that and the fact I still have a job.
Bon appétit. I’ll see you soon from across the table.
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