Restaurants have always been fonts of creativity, though the whimsical efforts of chefs and restaurateurs have typically been directed at diners’ plates, or maybe at decor and ambiance, all meant to dazzle or comfort.

Now, reopening restaurants around the globe are employing that creativity to comply with distancing and other measures meant to help keep diners safe from the novel coronavirus while maintaining some of the elements of the restaurant experience that people crave. Restaurateurs are taking innovative steps, big and small, with the goal of injecting a little bit of normalcy in a decidedly not-normal time.

Mannequins provide social distancing at the Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Virginia. Steve Helber/Associated Press

At the three-Michelin-starred Inn at Little Washington in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains, chef/owner Patrick O’Connell hatched a plan to use mannequins wearing vintage costumes to fill seats left empty by Virginia’s rules mandating that restaurants operate at half capacity. Some on social media found the prospect of dining among inanimate companions … a tad creepy.

But theatricality has long been a signature of the world-renowned restaurant, where cheese is served from a mooing cow-shape cart and crystal chandeliers hang in the kitchen’s chicken coops. “The Inn at Little Washington has always celebrated the ‘living theater’ of a restaurant,” O’Connell said in an email, adding that he hopes the setup will amuse diners while complying with the regulations. “We’re all craving to gather and see other people right now. They don’t all necessarily need to be real people.”

A restaurant in Sydney, Australia is trying something similar, albeit in two dimensions. Five Dock Dining is reportedly propping up life-size cardboard cutouts of good-looking patrons to make the few (real-life) diners feel part of a crowd while restaurants are permitted 10 or fewer patrons. The restaurant “also plans to play guest ‘chatter’ on the speakers.”

Many other restaurateurs are looking outside the box – or at least outside their doors, converting outdoor spaces into dining areas to accommodate various dictates that they reduce capacity and maintain distance between tables.

David Henkes, a senior principal at research firm Technomic, says diners will soon get used to a different experience. Sanitation measures probably will be more visible and dining spaces unconventional – but customers, he says, are willing to go along.

“The consumer is accepting of a lot of things you never would have expected,” he says. “We’re seeing a lot of outdoor dining, with restaurants moving into parking lots and loading docks – they’re taking space you never would have imagined dining in six months ago. But, hey, you’re in a restaurant.”

At Clarity in Vienna, Virginia, chef and owner Jon Krinn is planning to turn his large parking lot into extra seating, offering patrons a parking-space “slip” where they can pull in and eat $80 multicourse meals at tables and chairs. He’s imagining the concept as “pod dining meets tailgating meets tasting menu.”

He thinks such touches as china, disposable menus presented in envelopes, and strings of lights – not to mention the food, which will include the kind of cheffy ingredients most people have not been cooking with at home – will elevate the experience. “Restaurants are like little mini staycations. We’re whisking you away, because you can’t actually take a vacation on a Tuesday night,” Krinn says. “We’ve always tried to do this.”

The Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority announced that it would allow restaurants to apply to serve beer, wine and cocktails in such expanded spaces, potentially offering a lifeline to businesses adjusting to operating at half capacity.

Krinn notes that restaurants operate on slim margins even in the best of times and that reducing the number of diners means that innovating is an existential matter. “We have to look for out-of-the-box ideas to have an opportunity to bring in an income stream, while being safe,” Krinn says.

Another parking-lot repurposing is happening at the Kowloon restaurant in Boston, which is planning to offer carhop-style service that it will operate alongside a drive-in movie theater. Such a themed setup offers the longtime family-owned business a way to make socially distant dining feel purposeful rather than a concession to state mandates.

Whether serving diners inside or out, Jon Taffer, a restaurant and hospitality consultant and the host of the Paramount Network show “Bar Rescue,” says restaurants will have to find imaginative ways of meeting the new requirements.

In pre-pandemic days, he notes, “sterile” was a pejorative term in the restaurant world. Now, it might be the highest compliment. “The problem is that sterile and fun tend to slap each other in the face,” he says. “We have to find ways to infuse energy into half-full dining rooms.”

He has been counseling restaurants to consider increasing the volume of their music to make up for the lack of buzz, and to offer dishes that are more colorful and interactive (and Instagrammable) – replacing a single ramekin of sauce with a trio, say, for more appeal. “We don’t want people sending out pictures of waiters in masks or pictures of an empty restaurant,” he says. “We want people sending pictures of their plates.”

He applauds those who have found ways to fill in the gaps and to create barriers that feel intentional, such as large, decorative plants or even cases or kegs of beer at casual eateries. “I always say it should feel deliberate.”

In Canton, Ohio, the owner of the popular cafe Twisted Citrus took a novel approach to the state’s mandate that diners remain at least six feet apart or be separated by a physical barrier: clear shower curtains around booths, which can be cleaned before flipping the table.

Overseas, restaurants are giving diners the option of extreme – and extremely eye-catching – distancing.

ETEN at Amsterdam’s Mediamatic arts center launched a project called Serres Séparées, French for “separate greenhouses,” in which diners are seated in glass enclosures that overlook a scenic marina. Waiters serve the plant-based dishes on long wooden planks – a stylish way to maintain distance from diners.

And in Sweden, there’s the rustic-chic pop-up Board for En, which translates to “Table for One,” whose concept might not be economically viable for many other restaurants: It serves just one solo diner each night in a picturesque field. There are no servers; instead, the couple operating the eatery place the food in a basket that arrives via a rope-and-pulley system.

“Let’s face it, a table for one might be our only option for a while,” the restaurant’s website says. “So why not choose a table with style?”


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