The great outdoors, with table service – Notes from the first weekend of dining al fresco

Riviera Village on Sunday showed the promise of outdoor dining in a post pandemic world. Photos by Kevin Cody

Petros Benekos of Petros Restaurant in Manhattan Beach looked a bit weary toward the end of the dinner rush on Friday, but he was also  exhilarated because the restaurant had a nearly full outdoor patio. As he is well known for chatting with his customers and making them feel at home, I knew he would have an answer when asked about how confident they are about dining in public again. He took a moment to consider before responding.

“I think that about 80 percent are just so happy to be here, to have an experience like normal, that they are completely comfortable once they’re seated. Another 10 percent are cautious, maybe a little hesitant, and 10 percent are wondering if they made a mistake now that they’re outside again. It’s going to take some people a while to feel secure outside, with other people around.”

It was the first night of legal outdoor dining since late November, and the Metlox Plaza restaurants were buzzing. The large open space had plenty of room for personal distancing, and most diners seemed to be behaving appropriately. I couldn’t see whether Petros was smiling behind his mask but given the scarcity of empty chairs he had reason to.

“People have been at home for months, they have dreamed of all the restaurants they want to revisit, and the ones they never tried but always wanted to. If we give them an enjoyable experience, remind them of how much they enjoy the liveliness of dining out, they’ll come back and they’ll tell their friends.”

Metlox was lively but generally serene, but that wasn’t the case everywhere I visited over the weekend. On Saturday night, Riviera Village was loud and more chaotic. At the Catalina dining deck shared by several restaurants, groups of people stood close together maskless and talked loudly over amplified live music. If anybody was even attempting to enforce social distancing in this area, I didn’t see it. Areas that were exclusive to one restaurant were better organized, and their popularity did not suffer for it. A hostess at the HT Grill said that earlier there had been a wait of over an hour for tables.

HT Grill doesn’t take reservations, but places that did reported that they started coming in the moment dining was allowed again. Matthew at The Rockefeller Redondo estimated that about half of their customers that evening had made reservations, while the rest were walk-ups, many of them from outside the area.

“With outdoor dining open again, the Riviera is back alive. You get people from all over coming down to relax and enjoy the nice weather. They’re just happy to get out of the house and wanted to pick up where they left off.” Asked whether people are splurging on high-end drinks to celebrate, he said, “There’s no change in what people are ordering, and our check average is about the same.”

At The Rockefeller I saw a server in their private area remind a customer about masking while not dining, something not observed half a block away in the shared area. Restaurants around the Hermosa downtown seemed generally responsible, too, which was surprising given the area’s reputation as party central. Tyler at Hermosa Brewing Company took a moment between customers to explain that establishment’s attitude.

“We’re very cautious, and hope to set a good example so customers will be cautious as well. The outdoor dining area is public property, but these are our tables and chairs, so if they’re not buying from us and being responsible, they have to leave. We don’t give them the option to stand in a group, for instance. Not everybody is actually considerate of others, but I tell people to leave all the time if they’re not following the rules. We want to be open, we want to stay open, and we really care about this.”

“We don’t give them the option to stand in a group,” Hermosa Brewing’s Tyler Shalvarjian said of the restaurant’s social distancing policy.

There were fewer crowds at eateries along PCH, and more empty tables. Kevin Leach of Pacific Standard Prime was grateful to have a full patio on Saturday evening, but said neither the decision to fire up the stoves nor the logistics were easy.

“We wanted to get open as soon as possible, but if we felt we couldn’t offer the same quality of experience today as we did a few months ago, we wouldn’t have done it. We were lucky that some of our key people were willing to come back on very short notice. This is not the way I would have preferred to do this, but we had to react to the situation as it changed.”

Like almost all restaurants, PSP had fewer entrees on offer than usual, and Kevin was open about the challenges in his business.

“We got a few of our servers back, but we’re running with a bit of a skeleton staff, with a skeleton menu. We’re going to slowly reincorporate seafood because everything we use is fresh… You can imagine what it’s like when everybody in the trade is trying to change and increase their orders at once. We also have to keep one thing in mind – the closure happened once, it could happen again, so we’re going to keep a bare minimum inventory.”

Restaurants that were serving over the weekend were probably particularly busy because many of their competitors hadn’t been able to restart on-site dining or hadn’t reopened at all. Will the rush taper off at the same time that more restaurants open to handle it? When I surveyed the scene in all three cities on Monday night, when the crowd would presumably be more local, most places seemed to have moderate crowds, perhaps bigger than a typical Monday in days gone by, but without lines to get in. Diners will have to get used to the idea that enjoying outdoor meals is even an option, restaurateurs will have to restart and maintain service at their usual standards, and both will keep an ear cocked for news from the authorities that could shut it all down again. ER 

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