When You Reopen, Sanitize Everything But Your Restaurant's Spirit

Chicago, Illinois

As I talk to chefs and restaurant owners around the country about how they will approach reopening—whether this week or months from now—the conversation almost inevitably starts with face masks and hand sanitizer. But at some point, we get to the less discussed issue at hand: How do you change your restaurant completely but retain its spirit?

What I miss most from restaurants are the moments — inhaling wood fire and wine as you walk into a warm room on a chilly night amid the sounds of people laughing and pans clattering on the stove. The luxury of sitting on a sunny patio with an icy cheap beer. Diving into a basket of French fries straight from the fryer and hastily dipping them into a ramekin of aïoli before they burn your fingers. Falling into a real conversation with the bartender or person next to you at the bar and leaving your phone untouched for a whole hour. That inevitable moment while eating at Avec when you realize you've ordered way too much food and offer the people crammed in next to you a section of the focaccia, taleggio still oozing out the side. 

We’ve lost many of those things, for the foreseeable future at least. I don’t want to sit next to anyone at the bar, or lean in to talk with the bartender. I don’t feel comfortable sharing a platter of food with friends, let alone strangers at a communal table. That beer—was the can disinfected before it was opened and poured into my glass? And I’m not going to be breathing in much of anything, especially not while wearing one of my new face masks.

But that's what I want when I return to restaurants, even more so than a pork shoulder cooked by someone else. Those moments exist in this new world, even if they feel different. 

These days, I go out once every week or ten days: to the grocery store, the wine shop, and to a few restaurants to pick up enough takeout for my husband and me to parcel out over the next few lunches and dinners. I really love being alone in the car, listening to the music my husband hates louder than is polite in our apartment, driving through the miraculously traffic-free streets of Chicago. But the best parts are the stops. At Perman, the wine shop that has been my go-to for years, I sneak in two or three minutes of conversation with Craig or Hannah about life and how they are doing as I pick up at the curb my case of wine plus a little vermouth for the cocktail hour that has become an important nightly ritual. I stop at Floriole, a bakery that is one of my favorite places for lunch and to bring visiting chefs (who can resist Sandra Holl’s laminated dough?) Now, I pick up frozen croissants and bread flour. Sandra and I smile at each other a little sadly after she recognizes it's me with a bandanna over the bottom half of my face and wave. At Bar Biscay, another restaurant once beloved for its sherry on tap, pinxtos and 4pm opening time, I wait in front after calling them from my car so I can pick up what I ordered from their new bodega set-up (sherry, olives, a steak, some cheese). I tear up when I see that they threw in a roll of toilet paper, and wrote “we love you” on the wrapper—my friends have so much heart. I pull up in front of The Purple Pig, reveling in this new world where I can double-park on Michigan Avenue while waiting for my dinner to join me on the sidewalk. Then I hit Lake Shore Drive and head to the South Side to pick up gumbo, corn bread, red beans and rice and stewed greens from Virtue. Inside, I get a cheerful greeting from Erick Williams, standing behind the bar that he can no longer fill with guests. We chat for a bit, which feels forbidden, even as we stay ten feet apart from each other. We talk about how restaurants might be able survive this situation. How our families are doing. It's a comfort, this snatched experience from the days Before.

I get back in my car, inhaling the smells of braised pork neck bones, warm cornbread and vinegar-laced greens. I smile at strangers in the crosswalk, having gotten my fill of the humanity that was once everywhere but now feels like a special occasion. At home I try to retain this feeling, resisting the impulse to read the news or Twitter. I flip to Instagram, to a post by Joe and Katy Kindred of Kindred: "Hospitality runs deep, friends. It's is not a transaction, it is Who. We. Are." 

Those moments sustain me. I think they will be what connects the restaurant experiences I remember with what comes ahead, even as I acknowledge that there is more fallout to come, much of it the people who have lost their jobs and restaurants. The future is daunting. And yes, there will be a lot of hand sanitzer. But those moments, however they look, are what I wish for.   

great blog Chandra. So descriptive, sadly so, but hopeful as well.
Chandra, as I read your thoughts and words, I feel the love of the industry you are a part of. Honesty and heartfelt words shared from you about the colleagues of this great industry in our city. Thank you and please keep writing and sharing your thoughts. All the best and be safe.
Perfectly captured!