Has pandemic fatigue got you down? Are you sick of subsisting on the two-year bulk-food supply you overstocked in your basement back in March? Could you use an hour-long break from staring at the same walls seven days a week? Have you become so annoyingly restless and loud that your family wishes you’d stop putting the “rant” in “quarantine”? Are you worried your favorite restaurant may collapse and die like Uncle Ben while you stand there like Peter Parker doing nothing about it? More importantly, can you afford to eat out right now? Most importantly, are you safe for other humans to be around?
Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: our first sit-down meal inside a restaurant in the Age of Coronavirus was not taken lightly, had its tense moments, and weighed heavily on me for a full fourteen days afterward. Today I type before you as a guy who’s successfully eaten inside restaurants nine (9) times within the past five months without dying or being interrogated by ruthless contract tracers. That number does not include takeout, which induces much less anxiety. Admittedly one of our nine expeditions ended with us fleeing a Panera in polite terror as too many fellow bourgeois began to converge on our position in search of bagels and free coffee refills.
Yes, as I’ve said before, the easiest way to avoid COVID-19 is total, uncompromising quarantine, much like how abstinence is the best birth control. Yes, agoraphobia is underrated for the number of lives it’s saved this year. Yes, it’s hard to put effort into anything when you’re demoralized and weary from constantly describing multiple aspects of everyday living as “horrible”. The pandemic is not over. The time to pretend everything is fine is months away. Russia’s typical natural-selection gambit notwithstanding, the first COVID-19 vaccines with zero lethal side effects are nowhere near the end of the Big Pharma pipeline. If America were the old starship Enterprise, we’d all be spending a fortune on 9-volt batteries from running our Red Alert klaxons 24/7.
But maybe, just maybe, it’s okay to treat yourself. Find a sliver of a silver lining amid all these clouds. Strike a match inside the tunnel while we’re all waiting for a light at the far end of it. If you’re careful and conscientious, you can leave the comfort of your personal fort, spend quality time on an enjoyable meal cooked by a talented and refreshing stranger, and use up your restaurant gift cards before they go out of business. If my wife Anne and I can manage it, chances are you can do it even better. Unless you screw up and do something stupid. Or someone else does in your presence.
The following ten suggestions worked well for us and so far have kept us off ventilators and Facebook quack remedies. In our own way, they also helped others around us.
1. Masks, masks, masks, masks, masks, masks, masks, masks, masky maskity mask-mask-MASKS. Duh. You knew this was coming. Here in the 21st century, despite and because of the internet, some people still need practical advice. Not to mention legal advice — here in Indy, masks have been mandatory since July 27th. I’m as tired of rehashing the reasons as you are, but my favorite reason to wear a mask right now is to show I care about the lives of anyone other than myself. Also, I have a pet theory that strangers find me less off-putting with one on.
2. Eat local. Most of your favorite multinational corporations with thousands of locations and millions of dollars in their officers’ coffers will find ways to survive, whether through the multitudes’ unwavering support or on the backs of the employees they dispose of along the way. Independent restaurateurs, now more than ever, have far more finite resources. They need your attention and hunger and financial support. Oakleys is the swankiest place we’ve been lately, but we’ve also become regular benefactors of a tiny chicken takeout joint doing the Lord’s work with fried foods and addictive hot sauce. A truly talented chef making magic in your vicinity is worth far more than a dumptruck of five-dollar footlongs on every street corner. Indie employees are also ten times more likely to take safety precautions seriously than indifferent corporate lackeys. (I spent twelve years of my youth in fast food. I know.)
3. Make reservations. Restaurants like to be able to plan ahead, in terms of ingredient inventory as well as seating. They can cheerfully arrange their distancing between you and other guests if you give them a courtesy heads-up. That in turn cuts down on the amount of time you and strangers waste on suspiciously side-eyeing each other when your chairs are only four or five feet apart. I’m a big fan of nabbing spots through the OpenTable app, but some places also accept direct phone calls from you weird chatty folks who are still into those.
4. Keep the guest list really, really small. No one wants to be the next super-spreader event like the Sturgis biker rally or the mule-headed churches that keep popping up in local health-hazard news. Ideally, limit your outing to your immediate cohabitants. Maybe choose between either your darling Significant Other or your least annoying offspring. If you’d like to spend time with members of one (1) other household that you trust to have played it safe and wise lately, then you might be fine, though groups of more than four may alarm others in your proximity. The more households that interact in one place, the more murderous the results can be. It only takes one (1) judgment error to infect all involved social circles.
(I’m not even talking about just restaurants here — we recently had an extremely close call with a medium-sized family gathering that, had some meddlesome time-traveler altered the course of our timeline by a single week, could’ve hypothetically led to me typing this entry from a laptop in a hospital. I was never an outgoing party animal before All This happened, but now I dread this mental image of a large, friendly get-together somewhere in my future that’s like a bullet with my name on it.)
5. Eat when no one else is eating. Thinking about a shindig on a Friday or Saturday night, same as everyone else? Oh, you populist fool. If establishments are restricted to 25% or seating 50% capacity, you’re looking at 2-3 times the normal long wait if you didn’t make reservations like I just told you to. Once you’re eventually at a table, with or without a wait, you’ll basically be surrounded on all sides — hopefully removed a bit from the other tables, but nonetheless sharing airspace with other house-happy citizens taking their masks off to nibble and chug. Minimize that risk with, say, dinner on a Tuesday night instead, as we did. As I recall from my old restaurant management days, 3 pm on a Sunday was usually a dead zone, or anytime after 9 as long as no major events were being held nearby. Fortunately for you, most major events have been canceled.
(Again, this tip is applicable beyond just deluxe munchies. If I can actually brace myself for a theatrical showing of Tenet so Christopher Nolan will stop crying himself to sleep at night, maybe my son and I could hit an unpopular AMC on a Monday night at ten p.m. three weeks after release, at the earliest. Quite a colossal “if” just now.)
6. Skip the coupons and discounts. If you’re on a tight budget and need to exercise financial moderation, that’s totally understandable. Your waitstaff are likely feeling the same if not worse. If they’re offering you savings with some sweet deals, then hey, cool. But if you can afford to go full-price and help ’em out in a capitalistically charitable sort of way…odds are they may just be as desperate as you, possibly more so.
Prime example: our fair city has a recurring program called Devour Indy in which we’re all encouraged to go visit dozens of participating eateries citywide and sample their wares at ostensibly reduced prices. According to a recent IndyStar feature, Devour Indy is actually helping run some places into the ground, where the anticipated sales boosts aren’t materializing — the last few times Devour Indy was held before the pandemic, mind you — and in some cases it’s delivering more injury than income.
(With our visit to Oakleys, we compromised. Anne ordered from their Devour Indy menu because it was the only way to get those delectable goat cheese stuffed dates. Meanwhile on my side of the table, I went big. To bring balance, you see.)
7. Order extras. Again, we’re talking about keeping restaurants viable and in business, saving their jobs while savoring their wares. Try a creative appetizer you’ve never seen on another menu. Fill up on bread and salad. Take home lots of leftovers and dine on them for days. Leftovers are a good change of pace from eating Spam four nights a week. And don’t look at me askance like no one does that. Anne checks the Spam shelves at our nearby groceries frequently. Someone’s buying it. All of it. Nonstop. Perhaps the good makers of Spam in Austin, Minnesota, appreciate your repetitive quarantine menu, but Chef Steven Oakley does not.
8. Make things easy on your server. If you think you’re a nervous wreck throughout your visit, remember they’re probably a nervous wreck, too. Kindness should go without saying, but yes, be kind — in deeds as well as in words. Keep your glasses near the table edge for easier refills so they don’t have to reach past you while you’re unmasked. Shove your used dishes and cutlery to the farthest edge for safer pickups (without upending everything, of course). Don’t snap your fingers and summon them every three minutes for more ice or extra napkins or dessert suggestions or complaints about your meal’s saltiness or whatever. Fewer server trips mean fewer potential contact points. Maybe they can spend the saved minutes on some extra deep-cleaning or sanitizing or otherwise steeling themselves for subsequent guests.
9. Don’t overstay your welcome. When you’re done, it’s time to implement an efficient exit strategy. No, I do not mean skip out on paying, Have your debit/credit card ready before they bring the initial estimate receipt. Slap it down then and there, thus skipping a step in the usual process. Don’t let them escape while you spend ten minutes rifling through your messy purse or haggling over divvying it up among your party. Once the server returns, sign quickly and don’t take eight minutes to calculate a precise 15% tip to the penny like you’re the grand wizard of Mathmagic Land. Add, sign, sekdaddle.
Better yet, plan ahead with an ATM stop on your way to the restaurant. As soon as they bring the bill, slap down enough bills to cover it plus a generous tip, tell them to keep the change, issue your warm but succinct thanks, then speed toward the doors. No loitering, no lingering over the last scraps, no looking for the video game lounge or playing on your phone or deciding it’s a great time to go say hi to someone you just recognized at another table for half an hour. Settle up, mask up, and get out.
10. Cope with the post-party paranoia. What if you followed this checklist but you fear you might’ve screwed up? What if the staff screwed up? What if the atmosphere around your table was contaminated by the breaths of whoever sat there before you? What if what if what if what if what if what if?
It’s okay. That paranoia is normal even if you think you behaved with utmost care, masks and all. Note the time of your visit on a calendar or calendar-shaped app, then spend the intervening time pacing back and forth, either physically or mentally, while hoping and praying everyone involved survived the encounter intact and no one has a viral time bomb set to explode in their lungs without warning. The angst should fade in fourteen days.
Then, Lord willing, you’ll be emboldened enough to try again. But don’t confuse effective safety precautions with Kryptonian invulnerability. You still have to be extraordinarily careful. Every time, with every step away from home.
The world is not normal yet, and at no point have we ever been promised goat cheese stuffed dates in the afterlife. Those are an exclusive item available only while you and their makers stick around in this life.