Masked and gloved wait staff. Fewer, and more widely spaced tables. Forehead temperature checks as you enter. If you’ve eagerly hurried out of lockdown recently to a favorite restaurant or two in Greater Palm Springs, you will have noticed that dining out is going to be different in the post coronavirus pandemic era.
And, behind the scenes, newly challenging, too. “There’s such a weird juxtaposition right now,” admits Tara Lazar, who has been on the Palm Springs restaurant scene for more than a decade, running three popular spots along Palm Canyon Drive: Birba, Cheeky’s, and Mr. Lyons Steakhouse. “There are so many factors that we need to consider: doing what’s right for our staff, doing what’s right for the community, doing what’s right for profitability, doing what’s right for image – you just don’t know.”
I headed to Mr. Lyons last week, and to two other local favorites of mine — The Vue at Indian Wells Golf Resort and Joyce’s Sushi in Rancho Mirage. I was happy and excited to be back out after more than two months of not only lockdown but of also putting up with some embarrassingly rudimentary home-cooking skills.
First impressions? For one thing, it is still quite early in the process of returning to something like normal: I had expected lined-up crowds of relieved patrons, but there weren’t that many of us out on the town.
My wife Giselle and I were among 15 or so patrons at The Vue in Indian Wells.
For example, my wife and I were among only 15 or so patrons on a Wednesday night at The Vue, where I would have expected twice that number at a minimum. Joyce’s, too, was uncharacteristically uncrowded on an early Thursday night – only about 10 of us – but I did notice that take-out seemed unusually busy, perhaps indicative of either a temporary reluctance to dine-out just yet, or maybe reflecting a shift in the way patrons will be enjoying restaurant food until a coronavirus vaccine restores widespread confidence.
Another impression I had was that the men and women who make restaurants run are challenged to keep the dining experience upbeat while wearing masks and gloves among other coronavirus restrictions that could create a buzzkill to the dining ambiance.
For Lazar, there’s been a personal side to the process of abruptly closing down and now carefully re-opening
“We closed early and stayed closed, we decided not to do take-out” she says, reflecting back on mid-March and the sudden sea-change all our lives underwent in one way or another.
Jenny Ramirez, Tara Lazar, Steven Jangi and Scott Duster greet you at Mr.Lyons Steakhouse.
“One of the biggest reasons for our doing it that way was very personal," she adds. "I had just had a baby and I figured that if I feel I don’t want to be exposed to potential danger, neither should my staff. I’m like the mother hen; I don’t want to put them in harm’s way. Like Scott at the front door, who does the temperatures. I asked him ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ And he was like, ‘Sure, I’m in my early 40s, I’m fine.’ But what if he didn’t say yes? I’d feel horrible asking someone to do that who wasn’t comfortable with it. So you’ve got to always remember that– they’re in the first line of fire.”
In my case, Scott, from behind his mask, and with thermometer-gun aimed just above my eyes, gave me, behind my mask, the all-clear – at 98.9, I was safely below the 99.5 limit. Apparently, though, some others have not passed muster at Mr. Lyons.
“Interestingly enough, we’ve had a few people come in with temperatures,” Lazar explains. “And they were very resistant. You would think they’d be like ‘I get it, I’ll come back another time.’ But I think it’s that we’ve been far from it, here in the desert. But knowing people in Italy or New York, I’m like, “Dude, you’ve got to be careful.’”
Temperature checks may prove to be one of the fault lines in the new normal: at neither The Vue nor Joyce’s were they checking temps. Same, perhaps, for the voluntary contact tracing program Lazar has instituted at Mr. Lyons; nothing comparable at the other two spots.
Meanwhile, all three of my destinations last week have altered their physical set-ups to a greater or lesser degree, removing tables and establishing the mandatory six-foot social-distancing spacing.
I thought The Vue particularly changed by the removal of what seemed like half if not more of its usual tables —all the empty space seemed distinctly puzzling, because we’re just not used to it.
At Joyce’s Sushi, which has a much smaller space than either The Vue or Mr. Lyons, it looked as though at least a couple of tables had been removed. The big question may be the booths. They are the favorites of us regulars, but since they are built-in the only way to social-distance them is to use every other one. That is the approach at Mr. Lyons as well, where tables have been removed in the bar area but where social distancing will be achieved throughout the rest of the establishment by just not maxing out available seating.
Lazar is realistic about the effect that these mandatory volume-reducing measures are going to have on the industry; she thinks many outstanding small to mid-sized restaurants are simply not going to reopen. Even some chain restaurants may disappear if they can’t find a new formula.
As for Birba, Cheeky’s, and Mr. Lyons restaurants – they’re going to survive into the new era, even though Lazar confesses that she really doesn’t know where things will stand a year from now.
“We’re taking a playbook from a restaurant group in Hong Kong," she says. "I just feel they’ve got it down, they’ve been masking for years and so on. It’s not that hard to implement a couple other standard procedures. But what may be tough is, Mr. Lyons is the kind of restaurant where you sit at your table and you know someone over at that table, or that table, or that one. It’s always been like a very mobile restaurant. And when it’s full, that is so sexy.”
For a moment, she pauses, remembering pre-Covid-19 nights. “That fun may be difficult to re-capture.”
Lazar is up for the challenge. “I’ve told my managers, the most important thing right now is we just have to be spontaneous. Just be ready – super adaptable. It’s always going to be changing for a while.”