James D. Morgan / WIRED
Each day Swedish restaurant Bord för en opens for a single guest. They arrive alone, without saying a word and take a seat at the only table. It’s draped in a simple white tablecloth, with a small vase of wildflowers on top, and sat in an isolated meadow overlooking the tiny village of Ransäter, far from anyone and anything.
Even the restaurant kitchen is 50 metres away. Inside, owners Linda Karlsson and Rasmus Persson busily prepare a three-course meal. There’s Swedish-style hash browns, seaweed caviar, and ginned blueberries with iced buttermilk. Each dish is decanted into pottery to keep it warm and packed into a small woven basket, before being hooked to a makeshift pulley system that travels from the kitchen window directly to the dining table.
Once a guest is ready for the next course, they simply ring a small bell, explains Karlsson. Other than that there’s no interaction. “We had one guest screaming at us that the food was very good but nothing other than that,” she says. “We’re not engaging in conversation with them.”
Keeping a safe distance is, after all, the point. The couple opened the restaurant on May 10, just as Swedish deaths from coronavirus surpassed 3,000. There’s a perception that Sweden is carrying on as usual, as a result of more relaxed restrictions than elsewhere in Europe, says Karlsson. But in reality, the majority of people are staying home and avoiding social interaction. “I hadn’t been to a restaurant for three months before I went to my own.”
The idea came to them in March when Karlsson’s elderly parents visited. Fearful of spreading the virus she and Persson, a trained chef, refused to let them in the house. Instead they served them lunch in their garden while they stayed inside. From there, the concept for Bord för en, or Table for One, emerged. So far, it’s been a hit. In the two weeks since it opened the restaurant has been fully booked, though that is limited to one guest per day, each one making a voluntary donation rather than paying a set price. But Karlsson thinks the concept has longer term potential. They are already considering adding a longer table with a seat at either end, and looking into opening up more solo dining concepts in new locations.
It’s just one example of the creative workarounds that restaurants are coming up with to keep serving in a pandemic. With talk of some UK restaurants being allowed to open from July, international examples of dining out in a pandemic serve as a clue for what diners here could expect in a few weeks’ time.
At Cheers One, a cheerleader-themed Japanese pub in Tokyo, owners have asked waitresses to wear both surgical-style masks and full-face visors along with their red and blue cheerleader dresses. Diners are also asked to undergo a multi-step disinfection process when they arrive, including temperature checks, disinfecting mats and multiple sprays.
At New Zealand street food restaurant Daisy Chang, owners hastily constructed temporary dining booths as the country lowered its alert status and allowed restaurants to reopen earlier this month. Made of a thin fluted plastic, the booths slot over tables and are intended to provide a “fun spin” on social distancing, the owners say.
Efforts to recreate a bustling atmosphere with fewer guests have led to some experimental alternatives. One Vietnamese restaurant in Bangkok has tried sitting stuffed panda bears at empty tables to keep lonely diners company. Chicago chain Harry Caray meanwhile says it’s planning to fill space with laughing cardboard cut-outs or mannequins of Chicago Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray himself. It’s a chance for a “great photo-op while maintaining a safe environment,” says the group.
Some of these Covid-proof solutions have proven to be such a success for existing restaurants that owners plan to keep them going well after the pandemic passes. This is the case for Dutch restaurant Mediamatic ETEN. Located in an arts centre on Amsterdam’s waterfront, the vegan restaurant had been forced to close its doors amid the pandemic. In March founder Willem Velthoven took a long look at the row of six greenhouses dotted along its outdoor patio, used intermittently to house art projects, and once used by a research team looking into the effect of viral infections on plants. He began to wonder if they could be repurposed for dining.
“First we tried it out. What’s it like to sit there for two hours to eat something? Isn’t it too claustrophobic? But it turned out it was really nice. It’s small and intimate. The doors are lower than six foot so you almost crawl inside and feel really encapsulated.”
Each greenhouse sits only two people. To avoid any contact between diners and waiting staff food is piled onto long wooden planks that are slid in and out through a small doorway.
From the first day people loved it. “Passers-by were stopping to ask if they could come,” Velthoven says. “With this new awareness of danger in the outside world it makes it harder to relax in public spaces. But in these you are cocooned, you don’t have to be aware of other people coming close to you or coughing. It’s become an attraction, rather than a necessary compromise.” Velthoven is now planning to build six more small greenhouses to extend the concept.
In the UK, restaurants are keeping a close eye on what’s going on abroad, according to Alice Woodwark, managing director of Restaurant Associates, which has a portfolio encompassing everything from Michelin-starred fine dining restaurants to on-site work cafes.
Chatting to colleagues in China, where restaurants began to open in April is like “a crystal ball in the future”, she says. “I’ve learned so much.” Initiatives that she can imagine transferring over to the UK include social distancing markers set out on restaurant floors, PPE for servers and hand sanitisers, face masks or visors handed to nervous customers and socially distanced staff briefings. Apps too could be used to book tables and time slots, even in office cafes, with an alert when your time is up. There’s even talk of a ‘ring for champagne’ bell at one of their higher end restaurants to avoid diners getting up to order drinks.
Each restaurant will have its own challenges depending on style, space and the viability of serving the same menu at the same price to potentially far fewer people. For chef Liz Cottam, social distancing might work at one of her Leeds based restaurants but not the other. At Home, a spacious fine dining concept in the city centre, she doesn’t expect it will be a problem. The tables are already more than a metre apart, in a space that could hold 100 but only seats 44.
At The Owl, a “cute, quirky, unusual, market-based gastro pub” where diners are encouraged to feel like they’re in a crowded market, it’s far trickier. She’s considering booths or partitions to separate diners but without some kind of furlough scheme still in place, operating at as low as 50 per cent capacity “couldn’t and wouldn’t work”.
There’s the dilemma of whether she’d want it to too. “People keep saying you could do this; you could do that. But that’s not what I got into this for. I’m a chef, we create bespoke experiences with the most outstanding food. The thought of changing what we do to compromise our creative integrity rips the heart out of why we’re here in the first place. It’s heart-breaking.”
While restaurants abroad are tailoring creative solutions to government guidelines, the big problem for many UK restaurants is that they don’t know what might be expected of them come July.
There’s been plenty of speculation for what socially distanced dining could look like here, including two-metre gaps between tables, 50 per cent capacity and staggered sittings, but plans are yet to be finalised. Proposals put forward by trade group UKHospitality last week attempted to nudge the government into putting together a more concrete plan with detailed suggestions spread over 75 pages.
Restaurants could be required to get rid of condiments on tables, they said, remove cutlery and prevent diners from propping up the bar before a meal. But still there’s no final word from the government.
Andreas Antona, who owns two restaurants in Birmingham and Coventry, says he’s spotted the examples of restaurants abroad propping up mannequins on empty seats, and the individual greenhouses at Mediamatic. “And we have an ideal opportunity to learn. But I’m not sure if the government is listening.
“There are all these examples of people trying to be innovative and I think there’ll be lots of similar innovation here but at the moment there’s so much uncertainty,” says Antona.
All sorts of questions are plaguing restaurateurs, he says. Is it worth investing in PPE and Perspex partitions that could cost thousands? How many people will be allowed to sit at a single table? Will there be strict timings as to how long you can spend in a restaurant? “Are customers going to be confident coming back? That’s the other big question,” Antona adds.
After all, if the UK follows the example of restaurants reopening elsewhere in the world, when they do it might be a wholly different dining experience that awaits them.
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