Years ago, I helped plan a major milestone reunion for my high school class. I was neither the student body president nor the valedictorian, but I did have one qualification that my former classmates did not: I knew how to use Microsoft Excel. Hence, my promotion from potential attendee to (assistant) party planner.

My job was to enter names and contact details into Excel as each RSVP arrived. I remember smiling and paging through an old yearbook as I input the information. The act of typing those names alone felt like a mini-reunion.

About two weeks ago, I had a flashback to that feeling when I started to compile another spreadsheet, this one of restaurants to be reviewed in 2022. Before the pandemic, I maintained a version of the same list. Each week, I’d update it, adding color-coded highlights to help me (and my editor) see what was eligible for coverage, what I was writing next, and any complicating factors (dress code, expense, seasonality).

This time around, I started with a blank document and began adding entering names cell by cell. Some were new: places I had only heard whispers about before the pandemic, like Café Louis, Radici and Crispy Gai. But what really made me start welling up was transferring names that still lingered on my old spreadsheet. Waiting for more than two years were now-familiar restaurants like The Knotted Apron, Magnus on Water in Biddeford, and Nura, all of which were newly opened (within our three-month grace period), back when everything tilted off its axis in 2020.

If you haven’t worked it out yet, be patient, reader: Please remain seated and keep your hands and feet inside the ride at all times – we’re about to start reviewing again.

As I gear up for a return to thinking critically about restaurant dining, I’ve also been realizing how different writing a full review will be. It’s pure denial to insist that our world is normal again, so why should we expect our food writing to be the same as it once was?

Advertisement

Before COVID, I rated restaurants on a five-star scale, taking into account the unique aspirations of each business while factoring in food, service, atmosphere and value. I haven’t always loved the constraints of awarding stars, but for many people, they’re intuitive.

More than two years after my last starred review (Anoche), I think it’s important to engineer some consistency into the rating system for 2022 and beyond, such that a four-star review means approximately the same thing now as it would have in 2019.

Service

I don’t believe for a second that people don’t want to work. What the “Great Resignation” actually signifies is that people are unwilling to shoulder the multiplex burdens of low wages, overwork and customer abuse. We’re seeing it play out across the service industry, especially in restaurants. Servers, bartenders, dishwashers, line cooks, even sometimes senior kitchen staff (chefs de cuisine, executive chefs) are harder to hire and harder to retain than ever before.

Restaurant owners and managers I’ve spoken with over the last two years have said that they now spend much of their time training and retraining new front-of-house staff. Some can’t hire enough people to stay open five or six days a week, others barely can. The upshot is that when I review a restaurant, I can’t think about service the same way as I once did.

So when I visit, I need to keep in mind that my server might be a newbie – perhaps new to this restaurant or maybe new to waiting tables in general. Or perhaps the front-of-house team is just scraping by with a skeleton crew that can barely cover the tables in the dining room. No doubt, my baseline standard will always be competent, considerate service. But when it comes to a server’s deep knowledge about the chef, the wine list, the venue and the menu, I’ll be grading on a curve for now.

Advertisement

Food

For most diners, there have been a few positives to come out of the pandemic. Better outdoor dining options (more on that later) and take-out alcohol sales certainly count. But so does the recent trend toward smaller, well-edited menus. To be fair, not all restaurants are happy about being forced to trim their dining options in response to labor and supply shortages. But there’s a silver lining stitched around this particular cloud.

If you’ve been reading Dine Out Maine since before COVID, you know that I have long admired businesses that understand their craft well enough to pare a menu down to its essentials. There’s a swagger to a full-service establishment confident enough to present a scant few options for appetizers, entrees and desserts. But until recently, concise menus were the exception, not the rule. These days, it seems like most restaurants, especially full-service establishments, have winnowed their offerings, eliminating scruff in favor of dishes the kitchen knows it can execute well.

I recognize that these dishes might not be the chef’s favorites, but the choice of what to eliminate and what to keep can be illuminating. In some ways, short menus make my job easier. No longer do I have to gamble when my dinner guest and I choose our meals; our odds of picking something representative of the kitchen’s talents are automatically much higher.

At the same time, with supply-chain uncertainty still a fact of life, I also have to be understanding about shortages or last-minute alterations to dishes. As a reader, you’ll have to share some of that responsibility and accept that something I rave about in a review might not be available when you visit. Naturally, we should all still expect high-quality execution – seasoning, technique and flavor – from the dishes the kitchen elects to keep, especially as the price of eating out has ballooned. But we all must acknowledge that we live in a world of restricted options, and that extends to dining out.

Atmosphere

Advertisement

Not too long ago, my favorite spot to sit at any restaurant was at a tiny two-top, wedged in so tightly that I could hear what my neighbors were whispering about their meal.

In 2022, I have more in common with the elderly woman I stood behind at a local bistro’s host station last month. “If there’s anyone coughing, I want a seat as far from them as possible, please,” she requested. When the host offered her a table directly underneath the rumbling air purifier, she grinned as if she’d just won a raffle.

Rest assured, I do not intend to talk about HVAC and Plexiglas barriers on a regular basis. Not every business can afford expensive retrofits.

Instead, I plan to continue to describe the design elements of the restaurants I write about, especially layout and décor, while also taking better advantage of the widespread availability of full-service outdoor seating. As the weather warms, more of you are doing the same, and ultimately, my meals should echo yours.

Speaking of echoes, I will continue to report back on noise level, regardless of where I sit. A reader from Cumberland emailed me last year about my metaphorical noise-level ratings, telling me how much he missed reading them. “I ate outside at Thoroughfare (in Yarmouth) for the first time this week,” he wrote. “And I was trying to imagine what you’d call the tables full of teenagers eating burgers. I think you’d call it ‘noisy cafeteria.’” Having downed a gochujang chicken sandwich on Thoroughfare’s patio myself that weekend, I’d have gone with “rowdy class reunion,” but I think we’re on the same wavelength.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of five recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association. Contact him at:

[email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.