The New Face of Restaurant Hospitality Is a Mask

ATLANTA — The other night I ate in a steakhouse. I had never been so happy to see a wedge salad in my life.

I hadn’t been in a restaurant since March 15, a few days before Atlanta’s mayor ordered all dining rooms to close. On April 27, Georgia became the second state, after Alaska, to allow restaurants to reopen since the pandemic hit. Chops, a 31-year-old temple of expense-account dining in the city’s Buckhead neighborhood, was one of the first to jump back into business.

My waiter, Roberto Velasco, seemed as happy to be at work as I was to be sitting in a restaurant. At least he seemed happy. It was hard to tell behind his mask.

For many people, the notion of eating in a restaurant still seems terrifying. It did to me. I sat at a table in the back and wondered if the coronavirus was floating down through the cool conditioned air, or if one of the diners ordering cabernet at a table nine feet away from was me a carrier. And are you kidding me with that valet service?

Against that backdrop, it’s hard to know what the new face of American hospitality will look like. But it will likely be wearing a mask.

The face mask is the most ubiquitous, and perhaps divisive, tool in an arsenal of protective measures, like disposable menus and plastic partitions, that restaurants are incorporating into an emerging culture of pandemic hospitality.

“People need to get out, obviously, and they don’t want to walk into an atmosphere that increases their anxiety,” he said. “They want something to dispel the period we are living with.”

For some diners, seeing staff members wearing masks is a comfort. For others, the masks provoke anxiety, he said. If guests ask to be waited on by someone without a mask, and the waiter is willing, the restaurant will accommodate them.

“We invite all of our guests to have fun on their own terms,” Mr. O’Connell said. “It is always our ultimate goal to be healers. We’ve created a sanctuary, a place which is nurturing, and a mask for some people is a symbol of that and for others it is not.”

“I personally would have felt just fine if they hadn’t worn masks,” he said. “I understand why they were doing it, but a big part of dining in restaurants is that you have a warm experience that is sometimes about more than the food. It’s hard to deny the fact that seeing your server’s face is part of that.”

Mr. Davis didn’t wear a mask in the restaurant, and none of my fellow diners at Chops steakhouse did, either.

She had worn a mask when she walked in, and was glad that Ola Garcia, her server, wore one, too. Both had their temperatures checked when they arrived, Ms. Garcia before she started her shift and Ms. Wilson at the door.

“I don’t eat just anywhere, and I am not going to other places that have opened,” Ms. Wilson said. “But I’ve been here enough, and I see what they’re doing with the cleaning and the gloves and the masks to know I’m safe.”

For other diners, all the masked waiters and plexiglass dividers in the world wouldn’t get them into a restaurant yet.

“It’s not about trusting them, it’s about trusting the idiots who are coming in,” said Dale Benerofe, a health care worker in Atlanta who used to eat out two or three times a week. “I want restaurants to open up. I really do. But not now. It’s too stressful.”

“What we’re dealing with, all of us, is fear,” he told me last week. “I’ve always believed hospitality is the antidote to fear. What we are usually really, really good at is to welcome people and make people feel good around a table. But that tool has been taken from our hands.”

Some say visible signs of sanitation, including masks, will simply become the new mark of hospitality, layered into operations in the way health codes, licensing requirements or advances in technology like online reservations have been.

All of which can be baffling restaurant owners as they try to balance safety with customer expectations.

“I’ve said from the beginning that we wanted our restaurant to be a respite from daily life, but what does that look like now?” he said. “I want them to forget about everything that’s happening, and not be inundated with all of these reminders.”

“When you make the mental decision that there is still room to be creative in this mode,” she said, “it feels more exciting and joyful and not just about loss.”

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