Whether sitting alone, with another person, or ordering takeout, dining out on a regular basis has been a part of my DNA for the better part of 25 years.
Being in quarantine found me cooking three meals and snacks a day, seven days a week, for over two months (minus a couple of call-ahead orders on the weekend); my dishwasher is run a minimum of twice a week. To say I missed sitting at a table or on a barstool was an understatement. I craved in-person conversation with friends, and not needing to prep, cook, and clean multiple times a day.
As restaurant restrictions were loosened over Memorial Day weekend, I wanted to experience how the dining scene has changed. For the last week, I’ve headed out multiple times, being mindful of the California Department for Public Health and Cal/OSHA’s Guidance for Dine-in Restaurants. Here’s how it went.
Meal #1: Brunch on Sunday
First stop was at Break of Dawn in Laguna Hills on their first day of service since quarantine. Normal operating hours of 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday, were reinstated last week.
I arrived at 10:30 a.m., and the three other tables inside were seated far apart. Having a generously sized dining area, there was more than enough elbow room for diners to sit comfortably. Owner/chef Dee Nguyen commented that he avoided using the two top (tables) in-between parties to maintain the social distancing. Our host doubled as our server, and he wore gloves and a mask.
Despite serving a menu that has seen few changes over the 12 years they’ve been in business, chef Nguyen took the time during quarantine to develop new dishes, with plans to roll more of them out in coming weeks. My dining companion ordered a signature Hawaiian sausage and fried egg dish, while I decided on something new to the menu: a Bolognese-style wild boar and beef meatball sauce served beneath a half-dome of chef’s “magical” rice and mozzarella fried eggs.
For my first meal back in a dining room, I have to say it didn’t feel all that different from a normal visit, except for our server’s appearance and being seated far from others. If anything, the most awkward part of brunch was not knowing if I should approach any of the other tables, since it turned out I recognized someone at each. Donning a mask, walking over, but staying six feet apart felt too uncomfortable. Plus, I didn’t know how uncomfortable they might feel.
Following Break of Dawn’s second day of service that Wednesday, I reached out to Nguyen to inquire about how it went. Specifically, I was curious about the flow of customers. A dining room usually known to have a perpetual waitlist was noticeably less crowded. “So much uncertainty right now. Fear of death and finances will hold people back, for sure,” said Nguyen. He has been working on opening a second branch in Orange. While COVID-19 has slowed things down, the new location is still in the works. The plan is to convert a duo of 1905 homes near the Old Towne railroad station into a restaurant and residence, respectively.
Meal #2: Dinner on Sunday
Dinner meant a drive south to Whitestone Restaurant & Bar in Dana Point. Having opened near the end of last year, they were gaining a local following right when residents were required to shelter in place.
A limited take-out menu has been available since that time. The entry has been converted to additional patio space (they have existing dual patios on opposite ends of the restaurant), with the host stand front and center as you approach from the parking lot. Two tables in the entry patio were in use.
Inside, groups were staggered throughout the space. We were allowed to choose our own table, and opted for a raised banquette booth. Part of the tabletop was taped, indicating seating for two instead of four. Our seatbacks were adjacent to a matching booth, and by taping part of that table off, it promoted physical distancing. From our vantage point, we also noticed Whitestone’s back patio was similarly taped off.
The most notable detail from dinner was in the very beginning, when our hostess instructed us to scan a quick response (QR) code displayed on the podium. It directed us to their dining menu, dismissing the need for menus, disposable or reusable ones that could be sanitized. Despite the QR being tech savvy and very appropriate under the circumstances, it was dual-edged in making the required cell phone use more acceptable around the dinner table.
While the dishware and silverware were disposable, our glass of wine was in proper stemware. Everybody pitched in to serve customers: the hostess took our beverage order, the bartender memorized our food request, and the individual serving our food doubled as a busser.
In fact, when we inquired about dessert options from the server/busser, we also learned that it was his first day. Some restaurants are hiring new employees because laid-off employees are reluctant to return to work. The inability to find proper childcare, fear of being exposed to infected customers, and simply the fact that current unemployment payments bring in more income than restaurant wages and tips (which are low due to the reduced number of patrons dining in) all play into the decision of whether or not it is the right time to go back to work.
Meal #3: Dinner on Thursday
Starting night for in-person dining at Twenty Eight in Irvine was on Thursday. They are one of many establishments requiring advance reservations to better manage headcount and social distancing. We noted three other parties seated during our reservation.
I arrived to notice that bar seating had not only been removed, but a complete remodel of their lounge and patio recently took place. We opted to be seated outdoors. While the previous two meals documented above were in dining rooms where empty tables were between us and the next party, the rearranging and replacement of patio furniture here gave the area a flow that was more intimate than forced.
After cocktails, a charcuterie and cheese board and salmon crudo, our masked and gloved server brought out replacement silverware for our final course. We didn’t request it, but the kitchen preferred it. In the same manner as Whitestone, we also utilized the menu pulled up on our phones after scanning their QR code.
When it was time to pay, she brought out a handheld card reader. The first time we remembered encountering one was back in 2014 on vacation in London. This newer model allowed us the option to have a receipt emailed or texted. Validation for the parking structure is now a self-serve task as one passes the host stand.
Ultimately, How Did It Go?
After dining at three independently-owned restaurants, I can say that as earnestly as dining rooms and kitchens are focusing to abide by the guidelines and changes being made for in-person dining, there is just as much, if not more hesitation by customers to return to this way of life. As such, takeaway service will continue to be a major part of any establishment’s income until patrons can feel more comfortable with going out and receiving tableside service once again. Creative, consistent marketing and improved menu selections will go a long way toward sustaining their presence.
With regards to tangible updates, I have yet to spot plexiglass partitions in a dining room. As one chef referred to them, they are “the new toilet paper” when it comes to sourcing products. Depending on the overall size of a dining area, these partitions may not even be necessary, but it may create a long-term impact on overall capacity when more people eventually venture back to their usual places. I plan to continue a mix of takeaway and in-person meals, but will refrain from gathering in groups for the time being. If a proven vaccine was introduced in the near future, that would be the ideal circumstance to reevaluate dining out more.
In Other News: What is Available to Celebrate Grads and Dads?
Drive-through graduations and birthdays are popular alternatives to virtual get-togethers right now. If you are celebrating a special event at home with your family, or wanting to show someone you are thinking of them, delivering treats is always a satisfying alternative to a gift card. I’m eyeing three local finds to satisfy that sugar craving.
Foothill Ranch is the current home of this specialty French bakery. Never to be confused with macaroons made of coconut, a macaron is a filled delicacy that is popular for its fragile exterior and range of flavors. Chef Eddy Rocq was an Orange County mainstay for many years, well-known for his catering business. Nowadays, his focus is on this selection of petite pastries. If the brand sounds familiar, it’s likely you’ve come across their desserts at Whole Foods Market. ROCQ opens their headquarters on ‘Guilty Saturdays’ for walk-in business from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 27121 Burbank. Follow them on social media for updates on new flavors and additional surprises. The Saturday I stopped by, they added individual cakes; over the weekend it was almond croissants. (714) 488-6258.
Rebel Cheesecake from Uprising OC
Whether you select a flavor of subtly spiced cajeta (Mexican caramel), smoky strawberry jam, or umami-rich truffle honey, one thing is for certain: you are in for a delectable experience. This is not a factory-style dessert. It’s a labor of love from former sous chef Joshua Lozano (a.k.a. Uprising.OC on Instagram). Lozano forges his take on burnt Basque cheesecake, utilizing smokers normally reserved for notorious BBQ. The finished product crosses over into a savory realm, rooted in a crust of abruzzi rye from The Tehachapi Heritage Grain Project. Send a direct message over Uprising OC’s social media to learn more about their goods.
Knott’s Berry Farm Spiked Treats
Theme parks may be closed, but that isn’t stopping southern California favorites from making the flavors associated with them available. Take advantage of curbside pick up at Buena Park’s classic tourist attraction by ordering ahead online. Print a copy of your order number, and park in one of their designated spots for speedy delivery to your vehicle. All the details can be found on their website.
While their seasonal boysenberry plants sold out in under a week, a taste of Knott’s is still a mouse click away. Cherry apple bourbon butter, amaretto peach pecan preserves, and boysenberry brandy-infused fruit topping are some of the frisky flavors waiting for you. I’m contemplating a bottle of their boysenberry syrup to mix with club soda. Note: Product inventory often changes, so don’t wait too long to place an order.
Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.