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The new normal: Distanced dining

As the world eases out of lockdowns, some restaurants are adapting to the new normal in refreshingly inventive ways.

In these Covid-19 times, the phrase “new normal” is constantly bandied about, implying that nothing’s ever going to be the same again. Travel, hospitality and a slew of other industries are having to adapt to an unprecedented era that includes making room for social distancing. While the idea of finally getting your personal space back might sound good (especially for those who usually end up in the middle seat on long flights), this means restaurants, bars and other F&B establishments have had to radically change their business models.

(Related: Appetite: Bringing food, art, and music together)

Gone are convivial watering holes where an elbow in the ribs or a whiff of someone’s body odour are part of their charm. Some establishments have taken to this development with a little irreverent flair. Take three-Michelin-starred The Inn at Little Washington in the US, for example. A strong believer in the restaurant as a “living theatre” initiative, chef-owner Patrick O’Connell worked with Design Foundry and Signature Theatre to produce mannequins kitted out in ‘40s era livery to fill empty seats.

  • Distanced Dining Mediamatic Amsterdam

    Mediamatic Eten’s plan for safe dining: greenhouses, along with an apt plant-based menu.

This fulfilled the restaurant’s obligation to reduce occupancy by half while giving guests amusing photo opportunities, says O’Connell. “We’re all craving to gather and see other people right now. They don’t all necessarily need to be real.”

In the Netherlands, Amsterdam-based vegan restaurant Mediamatic Eten has created a private, quarantine-safe dining experience in individual, cosy greenhouses. Dubbed Serres Separees (French for separate greenhouses and a play on chambres separees), servers wearing face shields and gloves slide plates balanced on planks onto tables, minimising contact.

The idea of greenhouses, used in the past for art projects, naturally came about when the time to reopen came. Says Mediamatic Eten’s communications manager Tobias Servaas: “This will be the situation for the foreseeable future. Any restaurant or service will have to adapt.” Other more practical methods restaurants are using include table shields, which have been implemented at various establishments overseas, as well as a machine that sprays customers with disinfectant at Kichiri Shinjuku, a pub in Tokyo.

(Related: The importance of community and communal dining)

However, although restaurants are taking enthusiastically to reopening with social distancing measures in place, their woes aren’t over. Every single empty seat – multiplied across numerous seatings throughout a meal service – means revenue loss. The Feather Blade’s owner Sheen Jet Leong expects that many restaurants, including his own, will adopt a hybrid dine-in and delivery approach during this period.

“Striking a balance between the two channels will be a key operational challenge for most F&B outlets,” says Leong. Other measures such as staggering seating and collecting deposits on reservations might become necessary if restaurants are to survive, he adds. Adhering to social distancing belies the worries of insolvency for many establishments, which were already operating on razor-thin margins pre-Covid-19. Only time will tell if this new normal will stay or morph into something else entirely.

(Related: New menus and restaurants where the drinks are just as important as the food)