Every time I walk into a dining room now I pause and take a good look around. Then I remind myself to take a photo, for posterity. The images of New Orleans dining rooms as they reopen are snapshots of these strange times, with tables scant and spaced, the staff wearing face masks. Some people have told me the photos look depressing. But that's not how these dining rooms actually feel after taking a seat in them.
It does feel different from before. There’s a trickle of tension. Are we doing this right? Is it really okay now? Everyone is adjusting to a new reality inhabiting familiar spaces.
But once the mechanics of the meal got underway, being in these dining rooms felt like watching hope put into action. That‘s a welcome change after months of waiting, wondering, worrying.
What photos can't show is the restorative lift of people convening again, with the invisible but entirely tangible connection built there between them at the table, if just for a moment, sharing a meal, sharing some time at ease.
New Orleans restaurants, so entwined with the cultural and economic life of this city, are testaments to where we stand in the pandemic fight: aching to get back to normal, desperate to save businesses and jobs, anxious to do it safely in an era of unknowns. And so the reopenings are happening slowly, in phases, each phase its own test.
So when I turn up at a restaurant now I smile under my own mask and say “welcome back.” I take my seat, stash that mask and get down to business.
Red beans and rice at Dunbar’s because it's Monday. Lemon fish with crabmeat at Galatoire’s because where else will you get it just like this? Soft shell crab in its seasonal prime at Mandina’s. Oysters on the half shell at Pêche Seafood Grill because it’s just been too long.
Dining anssywhere now is bound to feel a little strange. It turns out that New Orleans restaurants can take strange in their stride