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Is it time to eat out now?

By ALICIA COLBY- SY, The Philippine STAR Published Nov 05, 2020 5:00 am

To eat out or not to eat out is a question that has been weighing on many minds over the past few months. For those who have returned to their workplaces after an extended period of sheltering in place, having a meal at a favorite eatery may seem a likely move forward as they settle into the new normal.

For those, however, who continue to remain at home on most days, the idea of dining out presents a less obvious and more challenging proposition.

Dining out is undoubtedly one of life’s great pleasures and is a more accessible luxury compared to other indulgences. Once a highly anticipated communal experience, the current COVID-19 pandemic has taken much away from this social comfort that played an integral role on how we gather together within our small communities.

Although dining in was reintroduced as early as last June, many restaurateurs observed that it was only in the last month that patrons began to return to leisure dining in noticeable numbers.

The decision to eat out is a personal one and, as with any important decision, making sure that you are well-informed with accurate and updated information is essential. Just as individual risk tolerance varies from one person to the next, so vary people’s concerns.

In addition to the minimum safety protocols required of restaurants by the government, many have taken comfort in knowing that there have been additional safety procedures initiated and implemented by restaurants since they have reopened.

WHERE EVERYBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME

If you have made the decision to eat out now, we recommend that you start by patronizing restaurants that you know and trust. Choosing a familiar establishment where you are comfortable will ease any initial apprehensions. After all, dining out is meant to be both enjoyable and relaxing, and a pleasurable experience is one that extends beyond the food served.

At M. Dining + Bar, an upscale restaurant in Makati, Tippi Tambunting tells us that it’s important that her guests see a familiar face when they visit. “Having the owners and management around make people feel safe,” she says.

Both she and chef Tom Bascon make it a point to walk around the dining room to welcome back patrons and show that they are in full control of the operation. They make sure that everyone follows the protocols that have been put in place, which include constant cleaning of surfaces.

“Before COVID-19, we kept our housekeeping discreet, but now I encourage our staff to show the guests the cleaning measures we take so they feel more confident that we don’t let small things fall through the cracks,” she continues.

Another precaution Tambunting has installed is the regular testing of its management and staff to make sure that everyone is in optimal health. Those employees who have not had the scheduled tests provided by the restaurant are not allowed to come to work.

Reservations have always been essential at M. Dining and at other upscale restaurants, but now more than ever they are a necessary tool used for everyone’s safety. Tables are laid out according to the size of the groups that are expected at each meal service. Then, tables are strategically spaced by Tambunting and her team across the dining room and in the private room.

“One of our biggest challenges is last-minute reservations. While we want to accommodate all guests, we first need to make sure that if we accept a booking, it is safe for everyone.”

MAKE LIKE A PARISIAN AND SIT OUTSIDE

Outdoor dining has become the preferred dining experience of many since restaurants have reopened, so much so that at the end of September, Rockwell Land launched a formal campaign, “Rockwell Goes Streetside” at their Lopez Drive, One Rockwell, and Santolan Town Plaza locations.

At Lopez Drive in Makati’s Power Plant Mall, customers enjoy weekend meals from restaurants such as Café Via Mare, A Mano, Teppan Okochi, Mamou, Barcino, Single Origin, and Ooma, outdoors.

The same experience can be had at the nearby One Rockwell, including Grace Park, The Test Kitchen, Tajimaya, Coco Ichibanya, UCC, and Nikkei.

Over at Santolan Town Plaza in San Juan, guests may order from any food establishment on the premises and enjoy their meals at the outdoor dining area in the Pavilions with its lush greenery and wide-open spaces.

Restaurants like La Cabrera, located in Ayala Center Makati, Txoko in Salcedo Village, and Bar Pintxos in BGC are also able to offer outdoor seating options to their customers. Although both La Cabrera and Txoko boast large dining spaces and have private rooms available, the owners recognize that some people are just more comfortable dining outdoors and have adjusted their spaces accordingly.

At Bar Pintxos in Bonifacio Global City, al fresco tables have always been the seating options of choice and are even more popular now. The newest Bar Pintxos branch, which is set to open at V Corporate Center in Salcedo Village later this month, will also have ample outdoor seating available.

“We’ve learned that we must be flexible and do what we can to keep the business going, and our brands relevant,” says Carlo Lorenzana, a co-proprietor of the three aforementioned establishments. “We are even willing to close down our restaurants for private groups with no restrictive minimums. As long as we can cover our costs, we can make that happen.”

Restaurants like La Cabrera in Ayala Center Makati offer outdoor seating options to their customers.

FINE DINING MADE SAFE

While outdoor dining does provide a certain level of comfort for many diners, there are those who prefer to sit indoors and soak up the atmosphere created by the restaurant. There are also restaurants with menus that are not easily served in an outdoor setting.

Metronome, the popular fine-dining restaurant in Legazpi Village, Makati, helmed by chef Miko Calo with partners Elbert Cuenca, RJ Galang, and Alain Borgers, does not currently offer al fresco dining; however, the owners have introduced new technologies to ensure that the air circulating inside the dining room is kept clean and healthy.

“We understand that the virus is airborne and we have to address the idea that it can be transmitted through the air-conditioning,” says Elbert Cuenca. “Since we opened, pre-pandemic, we’ve always had real ventilation and not just circulation through balanced airflow coming through the front door and exiting through the exhaust in the kitchen. Our air-conditioning units also have plasma purification built in that treats the proteins in the air (including dust, bacteria, and viruses.) We have also installed a Triad Aer, an American-made air-purification system that I installed in another one of my restaurants. The technology is NASA-grade and effective against bacteria and viruses.”

Metronome, the fine-dining restaurant in Legaspi Village, has introduced new technologies like the NASA-grade Triad Aer to ensure that the air circulating inside the room is kept clean and healthy.
Triad Aer

LESS MAY NOT BE MORE, BUT IT’S CERTAINLY SAFER

Responsible restaurateurs have also made sure that they are in strict compliance with the 50-percent-capacity limitations mandated by the government.

At M. Dining, Tippi Tambunting says that there are times that they will even operate at less than 50 percent to ensure that guests are comfortably distanced from other parties. “We really have to play around with the layout daily so everyone is properly distanced and if that means having less than 50 percent of allowable guests then so be it.”

Elbert Cuenca of Metronome adds, “The first thing we did was to figure out what 50-percent-occupancy of our restaurants would look like and then we removed all the excess seating from the dining room. The preservation of experience is important to us, so we didn’t want it to feel weird with chairs and tables visibly blocked off. We already configured our layout to 50-percent capacity, so even if every table and chair is occupied, we are still operating at 50-percent capacity.”

BEHIND THE SCENES

Through the pandemic experience, we have all come to realize that what happens behind the scenes at a restaurant is extremely important to our personal safety and well-being. We also have a newfound appreciation for all the essential workers and frontliners across industries that make our day-to-day activities possible.

The Moment Group, owners of Filipino restaurant Manam, and the group behind other successful eateries such as 8 Cuts, Ooma, Din Tai Fung, Mo Cookies, Shawa Mama, Phat Pho, Mecha Uma and The Mess Hall, has valued hospitality style and paid attention to the dining experience for the past eight years.

“Just as we did before the pandemic, our hope is for each guest to leave their worries at the door for a while and let us do our job of making them happy during the course of their mealtime,” says cofounder Abba Napa.  “Our team’s style of service, which springs from the core value of malasakit, is ingrained in us, the same as it always was. The safety protocols that we now have to incorporate can chip away at the humanity of the dining experience, but are very much needed, and so we counter that by going above and beyond in order to help you feel safe, comfortable and comforted in the new normal.”

Daily pre-service briefings are a time to remind frontliners (the team that is serving you on the floor) that it is important to still go through the habits and details of the pre-pandemic dining experience.

“This means smiling with our eyes, still smiling behind our masks and shields, and projecting our voices across the greater distance we now have to breach,” Napa continues. “It is because there are quite literally so many layers that now hinder us from showing good vibes that we overexert and are always on our toes because in this most horrific year, we cannot let our guests down.”

Manam offers its guests the choice between the standard service, wherein the diner can still hold a menu in their hands and have their order taken by a server, or minimum-contact service. The diner is given a QR code and an order slip to fill out and utensils are delivered through a caddy.

Operations for service now include Food Runners and Food Safety