Thanks to vaccines and reopenings, U.S. diners have been able to return to restaurants in full force after the previous year of shutdowns. But a lot has changed, even as it’s now possible to dine out as we might have previously: There’s more planning required, both within your dining party and to secure the reservation; there are more options for where, exactly, to sit in — or outside of — the restaurant; QR code menus aren’t just at chains anymore.
From booking a reservation to actually going out and sitting down to eat, this is the New Normal of dining out, as told by Eater’s editors and writers.
Before You Pick a Restaurant, You Have to Check Instagram
Checking a restaurant’s Instagram account has always been a part of my MO, but more for recreational purposes: What does that vague-sounding dish on the menu look like? Are there any cocktail specials this week? During the pandemic, though, checking Instagram first has become a necessity. Staffing struggles have made business hours more erratic, and a restaurant’s first line of communication — that they’re unexpectedly closed today or are skipping the usual brunch service or had a positive case that’s shutting down operations for a while — is usually done on IG. As the cold weather sets in, instantly checking Insta has an additional purpose: Scrolling through photos is the best way to sleuth for heated outdoor dining setups at your preferred coziness level. At this point, scoping a restaurant’s Instagram page is just the first step of many in making sure the night out is a good one. — Erin DeJesus, lead editor
Get on the Same Page as Your Dining Companions
Setting up a dinner reservation has always involved the who/what/where questions, but now we must consider: Indoors or outdoors? Or to eat out at all? We’re at a point where everyone is stuck navigating their own comfort and safety levels, where someone who is immunocompromised or has children too young to be vaccinated may have different considerations from someone who lives alone and craves human contact. Being a considerate dining partner now means asking about or speaking up about your own comfort levels, and ideally defaulting to the person who has the strictest rules. Also, be gracious if you or anyone else wants to drop out. — Jaya Saxena, senior staff writer
Reservations Matter More Now Than Ever
The pandemic has put an end to spontaneity in so many ways (simply leaving the house calls for double-checking you have a mask and sanitizer on hand), and the feeling is particularly acute when it comes to dining out. Reservations are now almost essential, and securing one seems to require more planning than ever before. Perhaps it’s a holdover from early-pandemic capacity restrictions, or a result of staff and supply shortages, but gone are the days when you could secure a week-of, primetime reservation at a popular restaurant. Sure, the no-reservations restaurant still exists, but when you factor in the new need to consider the exact table you’ll be sitting at (indoors or outdoors, sidewalk or backyard), leaving your dinner situation up to chance is a less workable prospect. This isn’t all bad. The need to plan ahead calls for being thoughtful about how you’re spending your time; it encourages making plans. And after many months with no plans at all, it can be nice to have something, even if it’s just a casual dinner out, to look forward to. — Monica Burton, deputy editor
You Need a Vaccine Card System
One of the best tips I received this year was how to access my phone’s digital wallet with two easy clicks of the side button. I never needed to access it much before, but as a 2021 diner in Los Angeles — one of several locations in the country where proof of vaccination is now required to eat indoors — I find myself scrambling for my digital vaccine card, along with my mask, every time I approach a host stand. I’m one of the lucky ones; many people never received a digital card and have to sift through 300 photos of their dog and yesterday’s lunch to find that one time they took a picture of it. (Pro tip: Create an album and add your vaccine card photo to that album for easier access.) The most tech-averse go even further, carrying the hallowed paper copy in their actual wallet, all for the chance to have a nice sit-down meal out of the elements. But do bring it; even if it’s not mandated by the city, many restaurants across the country have opted into requiring proof of vaccination for indoor dining. — Lesley Suter, travel editor
Contend With Your Table Obsession
I’ve always been something of a table obsessive. If there is a table that I think would make for a better dining experience, that’s where I want to be, and I’ll politely ask for it and see what happens. I noticed that when folks started venturing back out into restaurants during the pandemic, I saw that many were now on my wavelength. I know a couple who, in those first cautious months in the summer of 2020, would only go to their local sushi restaurant if the lone two-top kitty-corner to the rest of the outdoor dining setup was available when they made their reservation. Even now, there’s still picking and choosing to be done. Reservation platforms like Resy and OpenTable make it clear when you’re booking something outdoors versus indoors, and anecdotally, I’ve seen more people strategizing and asking about tables than I ever recall in the past. To them I say, welcome to caring. Now please don’t be an asshole about it. — Hillary Dixler Canavan, restaurant editor
Let Us Repeat: Don’t Be an Asshole
The “new” normal for how you should treat servers in 2021, 2022, and however long this lasts is pretty much the same as you should have always been treating them, only intensified. Have patience: Many restaurants are short-staffed due to the ongoing labor shortage, which means your server is most likely working even harder for the same shitty pay they’ve always gotten. They’re overscheduled by management, harassed by the customers they must ask to mask or show proof of vaccination. Tip generously: Restaurant workers have either been forced to work on the front lines of this pandemic or else faced months of furlough during widespread shutdowns; some were forced to take unpaid time off for catching COVID or to take care of family members who had. Tipping 20 percent must be your absolute baseline now, and when in doubt, round up. Lastly, be kind: No one (in or out of the service industry) has the time or energy to deal with yet another asshole right now. — Madeleine Davies, culture editor