Dine Out Maine: Two years after COVID-19 turned the food world upside down, we’re looking at restaurants again

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Years ago, I helped plan an important reunion for my high school class. I wasn’t the student body president or valedictorian, but I had a skill that my old classmates didn’t: I knew how to use Microsoft Excel. Hence my promotion from potential attendee to party organizer (assistant).

My job was to enter names and contact information into Excel as each RSVP came in. I remember smiling and flipping through an old phone book as I typed in the information. Just typing those names felt like a mini-meeting.

About two weeks ago, I had a flashback to this sentiment when I started compiling another spreadsheet, that of restaurants to review in 2022. Before the pandemic, I was maintaining a version of the same list. I updated it weekly, adding color-coded highlights to help me (and my editor) see what was eligible for coverage, what I was writing next, and any complicating factors (dress code , expenses, seasonality).

This time I started with a blank document and started adding names cell by cell. Some were new: places I had only heard of in whispers before the pandemic, like Café Louis, Radici and Crispy Gai. But what really jumped out at me was transferring names that were still lying around on my old spreadsheet. Waiting over two years, now-familiar restaurants like The Knotted Apron, Magnus on Water in Biddeford and Nura, all of which were recently opened (within our three-month grace period), back when everything tilted off-axis in 2020.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, be patient, reader: please remain seated and keep your hands and feet inside the ride at all times – we’re about to start the review again.

As I prepare to return to critically thinking about restaurant dining, I’ve also realized how different writing a full review will be. It’s pure denial to insist that our world is normal again, so why should we expect our food writing to be the same as before?

Before COVID, I rated restaurants on a five-star scale, considering each business’s unique aspirations while considering food, service, atmosphere, and value. I haven’t always liked the constraints of assigning stars, but for many people they are intuitive.

Over two years after my last starred review (Anoche), I think it’s important to create some consistency in the rating system for 2022 and beyond, so that a four star review pretty much means the same thing now that she would have done in 2019.

A service

I don’t believe for a second that people don’t want to work. What the “big quit” actually means is that people don’t want to take on the multiple burden of low pay, overwork, and customer abuse. We see it play out in the service industry, especially in restaurants. Servers, bartenders, dishwashers, line cooks, and sometimes even senior kitchen staff (head chefs, executive chefs) are harder to hire and harder to retain than ever.

Restaurant owners and managers I have spoken with over the past two years have told me that they now spend much of their time training and retraining new hospitality staff. Some can’t hire enough people to stay open five or six days a week, others barely can. The result is that when I review a restaurant, I can’t think of service the same way I used to.

So when visiting, I have to keep in mind that my server may be a newbie – maybe new to this restaurant or maybe new to waiting tables in general. Or maybe the dining room team is struggling with a small crew that can barely cover the dining room tables. Without a doubt, my basic standard will always be competent and attentive service. But as far as a waiter’s in-depth knowledge of the chef, wine list, venue, and menu goes, I’ll rate on a curve for now.

Food

For most diners, there were a few bright spots coming out of the pandemic. Better outdoor dining options (more on that later) and takeout liquor sales certainly matter. But so does the recent trend toward smaller, well-edited menus. To be fair, not all restaurants are happy to be forced to reduce their dining options in response to labor and supply shortages. But there is a silver lining sewn around this particular cloud.

If you’ve been reading Dine Out Maine since before COVID, you know I’ve long admired companies that understand their craft well enough to strip down a menu to the bare essentials. There’s a swagger at a full-service establishment confident enough to present a few options for appetizers, main courses, and desserts. But until recently, concise menus were the exception, not the rule. These days, it seems like most restaurants, especially full-service establishments, have been winnowing their offerings, weeding out qualms in favor of dishes the kitchen knows can execute well.

I recognize that these dishes may not be the chef’s favorites, but the choice of what to eliminate and what to keep can be enlightening. In some ways, short menus make my job easier. I no longer need to play when my guest and I choose our meals; our chances of choosing something representative of the talents of the kitchen are automatically much higher.

At the same time, with supply chain uncertainty still a reality, I also need to be understanding of shortages or last-minute changes to dishes. As a reader, you’ll have to share some of that responsibility and accept that something I rave about in a review may not be available when you visit. Naturally, we should all expect high-quality execution – seasoning, technique and flavor – of the dishes the kitchen chooses to hold onto, especially as the price of restaurant meals has skyrocketed. But we all have to recognize that we live in a world of restricted options, and that extends to restaurants.

Atmosphere

Not too long ago, my favorite place to sit in any restaurant was a tiny two-story, so tight that I could hear what my neighbors were whispering about their meal.

In 2022, I have more in common with the elderly woman I supported at the host station at a local bistro last month. “If there’s anyone coughing, I want a seat as far away from them as possible, please,” she asked. When the host offered her a table directly under the rumbling air purifier, she smiled as if she had just won a coin toss.

Rest assured, I do not intend to speak regularly about HVAC and Plexiglas barriers. Not every business can afford expensive renovations.

Instead, I plan to continue to describe the design elements of the restaurants I write about, especially the layout and decor, while taking better advantage of the widespread availability of full-service outdoor seating. As the weather gets warmer, more and more of you are doing the same, and ultimately my meals should echo yours.

Speaking of echoes, I’ll continue to report the noise level no matter where I’m sitting. A reader from Cumberland emailed me last year about my metaphorical noise level notes, telling me how much he missed reading them. “I ate out at Thoroughfare (in Yarmouth) for the first time this week,” he wrote. “And I was trying to imagine what you would call the tables full of teenagers eating burgers. I think you would call it “noisy cafeteria”. Having downed a chicken gochujang sandwich myself on the patio at Thoroughfare this weekend, I would have opted for a “raucous class reunion,” but I think we’re on the same page.

Andrew Ross has written about food and restaurants in New York and the UK. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He recently received five Critics’ Awards from the Maine Press Association. Contact him at:

[email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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