Boston Restaurants Are Back (Sort of), and Change Is on the Menu

Dining out isn't different. We are.

Diners return to Aquitaine in the South End during the first week of the Phase Two reopening. / Photo provided

It finally happened: I ventured out to eat at a restaurant. This is not the kind of thing one used to announce as a spectacular occasion, and yet, here we are. 2020, right?

This month, we entered Phase Two of the state’s COVID-era reopening plan, which allows restaurants to once again offer outdoor dining. And so, like an astronaut exiting the airlock to go on a spacewalk, I bravely debarked from the isolation bubble of my city apartment to rediscover what was now, after three months of strictly home cooking and takeout, the alien territory of semi-functioning human society. And here’s what I discovered, at least on this virgin voyage:

Dining out hasn’t really changed. We have.

Let’s break that down. First, I know we’ve all been wondering what dramatic new safety protocols are in place. I certainly was, especially after learning about, oh, robot bartenders that are supposedly in the offing. It remains to be seen what Jetsons-style solutions await once we move back into dining rooms, where concern over potential coronavirus transmission is more profound than in the airy outdoors. And of course, every restaurant is taking a slightly different approach to going al fresco.

Honestly, things felt pretty familiar when I excitedly arrived at Aquitaine in the South End on Tuesday night. As someone who writes about restaurants for a living, I wanted to remain agnostic in deciding where to go first—after all, I have too many warm and fuzzy associations to choose a single spot. I handed the reservation-making reins to my other half, who selected the stalwart French bistro in part for its location on the annual Pride Week parade route. With this year’s 50th anniversary celebrations understandably cancelled, it was a symbolic opportunity to lift a glass of pinot noir to memories of merrier, gayer days.

Admittedly, the urban energy was very different when we joined the slim count of a dozen or so guests seated at Aquitaine’s new outdoor arrangement on the Tremont Street sidewalk. At 8:30 p.m., the city was dead. Ours was a front-row seat to tumbleweeds until a friend happened by, en route home from her own first-dinner-out. (A chance encounter in the city! Remember those?) We caught up for a moment, from a respectful six feet away, but otherwise, the only other real activity was occasional curbside deliveries to the apartment building next door. Across the street, protest-proofing plywood on a storefront window stared back.

Although the evening cityscape seemed a pinch dystopian, the actual dining experience didn’t feel so strange. Yes, there was hand sanitizer on the table (nothing radical about that; I typically wash my hands before I eat). To access a menu, we used our phones to scan a QR code by the host stand; who among us doesn’t already skim the offerings online? The staff was wearing masks; I’m now so used to the regular sight of surgeons and bandits, it hardly phased me. And anyway, guests aren’t required to don them between dishes, though I asked our server if he’d feel better if we did. He didn’t care. (Helpful hint: Exhausted by mind-reading attempts or tiptoeing on eggshells as you gauge the COVID-related comfort zones of those you encounter? Here’s an idea: Ask!) The end.

At this point, I think a lot of food writers might romanticize the meal, proclaiming every bite an ecstatic experience, a spiritual reawakening—that food never tasted so good as outside the walls of home. That’d be a lie, and not just because I happen to live with one hell of a cook. The truth is, my steak au poivre was delicious and I’m told the roasted salmon was, too. But that’s also exactly what I expected: Aquitaine is a 22-year-old neighborhood fixture for a reason. In its kitchen are old (and clean) hands who know what they’re doing, and they weren’t going to forget their craft in 12 weeks.

Similarly, service was lovely—predictably so. The host graciously offered us a round of drinks for having to wait for our table; this was politely refused, but I’ll take the opportunity now to remind us all to be patient with restaurants as they work out their new COVID-time kinks. (I’m talking to you, Tuesday night’s Complaining Lady in Florals.) Our server was swift, friendly, and clearly eager to welcome back guests; that an ordered round of bubbly was briefly forgotten was, and this is going to sound strange, exactly the kind of normal-sized mistake that I sort of welcomed. People! Sometimes they’re not perfect! I’ve missed them so much.

Normal. That’s really all I wanted from my grand return to a restaurant, a little dose of normalcy and nothing more, but nothing less. We’ll see if indoor dining eventually offers that—but outside, despite the few added safety measures, I was happy to find that normal is basically what I got.

Until I got home—which brings me to the second part of my point, that we, not restaurants, have been the ones to change. You see, normally, you’d find me after dinner digesting on the couch, fiddling with filters on an Instagram photo. Normally I’d write a caption. I’d add a geotag. I’d hit “post.” I’d move on.

Not this night. Despite my lovely outing, nothing is really normal right now. Because of COVID-19, every choice that we make as we leave (or don’t leave) our homes carries the weight of a capital-s Statement. Does your decision to visit a newly reopened business make you anti-science or anti-freedom? Do you want to be singlehandedly responsible for putting someone in the hospital or out of work? Would you rather be branded as selfish and apathetic or overbearing and neurotic? Choose your side!

The idea that personal choices don’t have political consequence is naïve, of course. I know this. I also know that it’s not sustainable to enter a state of existential crisis with every move you make. We’ve certainly all had our ups and downs since this pandemic began, and I’m no exception. But I also thought I’d done a fairly reasonable job of holding on to loose strands of common sense that seem in short supply. I’d rejected the false choice between Instant Gratification and Permanent Quarantine in favor of responsible, reasonable and appropriate risk mitigation throughout the pandemic. When it comes to figuring out this so-called new normal, I make careful choices, and sometimes I make mistakes. I learn, I vet new information and I try again. In most circumstances, that’s the best we all can do, right?

But now we’ve changed—or, at least a lot of us have, anyway. We’ve started to mistrust ourselves, and our own decision-making. We rightly resist any suggestion that it’s okay to be cavalier, but also wince like a kicked dog at every opportunity to experience just a little dose of joy, afraid that doing so means we’re not taking it all seriously enough. We feel governed by consensus that doesn’t seem to exist, and we feel pretty gross about it.

So, you want to know what’s different about dining out? Here you go: Dining out is different only insofar as everything is different. I could read you a book report on the mild variations between current restaurant protocols—where you’ll touch a check-signing pen, versus where you’ll tap an app—but really, who cares? The only decision that matters is the one you make about whether to walk out your own front door. And when you get to a restaurant, you won’t just be choosing between steak or fish, you’ll be making a statement about how you’re choosing to navigate a very changed world, and about how you want to be perceived. That’s not what we ordered, but it’s the situation we’ve been served. And one way or another, it’s going to leave us changed.