Seven Ways Boston Restaurants May Look Different When They Reopen Post-COVID

Robot bartenders? Time limits on tables? Industry experts share big and small predictions for the future of dining out.

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Get ready: Dining out in Boston is going to look very different.

It’s been nearly two months since Massachusetts restaurants, in accordance with state restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic, pivoted to takeout-only service. But soon enough—well, not soon enough, but you get the idea—dining rooms will start to reopen. Don’t expect them to be (exactly) the same.

“I don’t like to use the phrase ‘new normal’; this will be a temporary normal,” says Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. Luz has been in contact with state officials about guidelines for operators in a post-COVID landscape, and though details have yet to be finalized or distributed, precedents set elsewhere suggest a few foregone conclusions: socially-distanced tables and mask-wearing staffers are certainly on the (now-disposable) menu. As restrictions ease and public concerns abate, some of these relatively modest measures may eventually become unnecessary.

But other experts foresee larger, more lasting changes ahead—especially when it comes to new restaurants that debut in the wake of coronavirus, which has laid bare just how vulnerable these businesses are to a pandemic. Everything from architectural decisions to whole business models will be rethought, says Ed Doyle, president of RealFood Hospitality Strategy Design, a Boston consultancy firm that works with prominent restaurants across the country. He doesn’t consider that an entirely bad thing. “We feel it’s an accelerant of a lot of trends that have already been happening,” Doyle says. “There’s going to be some restaurants that tragically fall by the wayside. But the challenge is: How do we take this awful event and try to get a morsel out of it that helps move our industry forward?”

So, what does all this mean for you, dear diner? To find out, we queried a quartet of industry vets from four very different corners: Luz, Doyle, restaurant architect Justin Alpert from Phase Zero Design, and James Beard Award-winning chef Jody Adams, owner of full-service restaurants Porto and Trade, as well as the Saloniki group of fast-casual spots. Right now, unsurprisingly, there are still more questions than answers. The future of restaurants will depend much on still-forthcoming regulatory frameworks, as well as what diners signal they expect and demand. (Read: Aside from hospitals, restaurants are probably already the most well-sanitized, highly-regulated spaces you’ll find. So some changes may have more to do with simply restoring for guests an emotional sense of comfort and safety—the “theater of sanitation,” as Doyle calls it—than actually making anything safer.) That said, these experts nonetheless shared a taste of what could be to come.

You’re not going to touch much.

Say goodbye, at least for now, to salt shakers and ketchup bottles waiting on your table, where they can be manhandled by many guests; instead, expect condiments to be provided by request in single-use packages or washable bowls. Bathrooms have already been moving toward automated plumbing, but foot-pedal sinks and other hands-free fixtures will increasingly become the norm. (Oh, and there’ll probably be a sanitation station by the restaurant entrance, so you’ll already be scrubbing your palms on the way through now-automatic sliding doors.) Meanwhile, modern ordering and payment technologies, such as mobile apps, will become more widely used, limiting the use of shared touch-screens, cash, and credit cards. RealFood’s Ed Doyle can even envision check-signing pens being stored in ultraviolet sterilizers in between use.

There’ll definitely be fewer people, but there might be more noise.

Six-foot social-distancing rules dictate that restaurants will reopen with a fraction of their capacity—whether that means 25-percent, 50-percent, or somewhere in between remains to be seen. And in keeping with limitations on the size of social gatherings, restaurants may hesitate to seat parties of larger than, oh, four people, adds Jody Adams. Consider the communal-dining trend officially over, for now; chef’s table setups, meanwhile, might now necessitate plexiglass dividers from the open kitchen, and you might also find them in banquette seating areas. One thing is for sure: It’s going to be a huge struggle for full-service restaurants, which average a meager 4-percent profit margin as it is, according to the MRA’s Bob Luz, to keep their business sustainable at such small volume. Industry insiders say that many restaurants may find they’ll lose more money by reopening at limited capacity than by simply staying closed, which doesn’t bode well at a time when, according to sobering national projections echoed by Luz, 1 in 5 restaurants could already permanently shutter due to complications from COVID-19.

And yet, even with fewer folks in the dining room, we may not see an improvement in acoustics. Noise is one of the biggest complaints of restaurant guests, and according to architect Justin Alpert, it may get worse as spaces move away from absorbent, harder-to-clean design materials: soft fabric-padded seating, tablecloths, curtains and carpets. They typically offer at least some soundproofing, but are also surfaces more conducive to the spread of coronavirus. On the other hand, if you’re a fan of the industrial-chic aesthetic, even at the cost of added cacophony, you may be in luck.

Bars will be last to open, and first to get—robots?

We can’t wait to get back to clinking glasses, but it may be a while before we’re rubbing elbows. Aside from cramped kitchens, bars are probably the part of a restaurant least conducive to social distancing and will, most likely, be last to return to normal, say experts. At first, they might be better used as distinct staging and pickup areas for takeout and delivery orders, which will continue to become a much bigger part of a restaurant’s bottom line. (More on that in a moment.) Alternatively, restaurants may use the square footage to squeeze in a few more tables for on-site dining. Once bars start getting back in the swing of things, though, it’s likely that guests will occupy every other stool, and architect Justin Alpert expects future bars to be designed a bit differently. For instance, they’ll probably be deeper and less linear, he says, placing more space between the bartender and staggered guests.

And that mixologist? They may not even be human. Ed Doyle of RealFood consulting believes that space, speed, and cost-efficiency considerations may accelerate the use of automation in restaurants, and robot bartenders, increasingly in use by high-volume venues like casinos and cruise ships, are expensive up-front investments that more owners may decide will ultimately pay off. (Yes, some of these robots even come equipped with attempts at witty banter—though, sorry, we just can’t imagine them replacing our actual repartee with Smitty, Sully, or our other favorite pint-pourers anytime soon.)

Takeout (and restaurant grocery-shopping) will keep taking off.

The state-wide shutdown of dining rooms has led many restaurants to pivot to takeout and delivery, even those establishments that might not have considered it in the past, fearful that their elevated offerings weren’t suitable for travel. Well, folks are getting over that, and takeout is expected to represent a “major piece of business” going forward, says Luz. Plus, so-called “ghost restaurants”—virtual purveyors that operate without a brick-and-mortar business—may pop up more frequently to feed a more decentralized city workforce.

Real Food’s Ed Doyle expects that this will all catalyze a revolution in food packaging, as manufacturers come up with better ways to keep your fish and chips crispy after a car ride across town. What’s more, he thinks that restaurants will find “a deeper way to engage with guests,” who might be making less-frequent visits. In other words, rather than simply swinging by a local haunt for a Tuesday night dinner, you might find yourself also going home with groceries and a week’s worth of family-style platters after your meal. “Restaurants should be doing as much as possible to extract as much engagement from you as they can,” Doyle says. “The relationship needs to be maximized.”

We can say, without reservation, that you’ll need a reservation.

First things first: You shouldn’t be ghosting on your restaurant reservations as it is. (You know who you are, McRude.) Going forward, though, it’ll be even more important to respect the reservation process, as restaurants will need to make the absolute most of their limited seating capacities. Reservations, rather than random walk-ins, will also help manage traffic flow at the door. As importantly, restaurants will have to plan their menus very carefully during a time when food-supply chains are interrupted—not to mention, they simply won’t have the capital to endure food waste. Bob Luz of the MRA expects that restaurants may also put time-limits on tables, in order to flip them more frequently, so no more lingering long after dessert; he also thinks we may see more “early bird special”-type hours designed to specifically accommodate older guests, who represent a higher-risk category if exposed to coronavirus. Finally, Jody Adams wonders if we may see an uptick in eateries offering specific timed seatings—room-wide dinners served at 5, 7 and 9 p.m., for instance—as a way to maximize every meal and streamline processes.

Expect more outdoor dining—and eggs Benedict.

For restaurants, anyway, breakfast is not generally the most important meal of the day. But Bob Luz of the MRA believes that early risers may discover many more options, as restaurants that previously eschewed breakfast service give it a go to make up for revenue lost elsewhere. And even though Boston has a relatively short season for al fresco dining, outdoor seating should flourish at a time when fresh air and proper ventilation take on added importance, and restaurants are trying to “recapture square footage,” says Alpert. (Note: Now might be a good time to invest in heat lamps.) In fact, Bob Luz says the MRA is in conversations with state officials about how restaurants might be allowed to spill onto sidewalks, lawns, and parking lots to increase some capacity, accommodate social distancing, and let sun-starved urbanites soak up more Vitamin D with their mimosa.

You’re probably going to pay more.

Bottom line: Expect to see a bigger bottom line. Restaurants may need to retrofit their spaces, overdue bills will have to be paid, new construction could be more expensive due to different materials and supplies (how much will all those masks cost?), and the need to pay hospitality workers a real living wage has never been more apparent. Meanwhile, business will be tighter than ever. So right now, it’s nearly impossible to imagine that some of these costs won’t be passed along to consumers. While no one likes to pay more, it’ll be a necessary evil to keep a lot of our favorites afloat—and, if nothing else, now that even the biggest restaurant-scene enthusiasts are back to using our home kitchens again, it may make the dining-out experience into more of an occasion, something to be truly savored. Not that we needed another reminder of that, right now.