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The Joy of Dining Out Again

Jun 26, 2020 5:50 AM

There is no substitute. It’s a signature line that comes from the 1983 hit movie Risky Business, starring a young Tom Cruise, but it also applies to the notion of a dine-in meal versus takeaway food. Last weekend, for the first time since the Circuit Breaker landed on April 7, restaurant-deficient patrons could finally dine out. After more than 10 weeks of staying at home, what was the experience like?

Staying home for a prolonged period, memorizing menus and living on a steady diet of takeout food has its benefits – like being able to tell your kids apart – but eating from paper boxes can’t compare to a night out at a buzzy eatery with a significant other or a group of close friends.

Risky business is also an apt phrase for the situation restaurant owners now find themselves in, as seismic shockwaves caused by the coronavirus continue to reverberate throughout the globe. The F & B industry has taken a serious battering and casualties are mounting daily, so it was a big deal when the government announced that Phase Two of the pandemic response would begin on June 19.

Not surprisingly, droves of people donned facemasks and marked Day One of their alternate reality by heading for the great indoors.

Bookings surged, restaurants were filled (to perhaps half their pre-Covid-19 capacity, thanks to social distancing and other measures) and just being in an actual dining environment brought smiles to faces (although I’m only guessing here since everyone was wearing masks). Normal service may never resume, but it still felt good to be back.

The new rules inevitably put a damper on the customer experience, as once-cosy environments were reduced to ordinary spaces and noisy chatter from large groups vanished entirely. Restaurant operators, already frazzled from months of uncertainty and depleted bank accounts, were further vexed by the presence of NEA inspectors, there to prevent too much fun from breaking out.

My reopening night meal at Yan Ting, the creative Chinese restaurant at the swanky St. Regis Hotel, was characterised by a comprehensive screening process, masks-off etiquette during dinner and high-quality cuisine that no takeout meal can replicate. Our server informed us that seating capacity was down to about 70 from 120 (hotel room occupancy, meanwhile, hovered at a measly 15 percent).

Once the new-found novelty of dining in wore off, my companions and I exchanged CB horror stories while contemplating the not-sorosy economic future. There was something disconcerting about not being able to extend the evening with a postprandial drink but bars remain shuttered and alcohol sales – a significant factor in a restaurant’s bottom line – are prohibited after 10.30 p.m. The way 2020 is going, however, starting to drink from lunchtime is a distinct possibility.

The consensus at the end of our meal was that despite the enforced changes and a deflating, all-too-early conclusion to the evening, dining in beats the alternative by a long way. In the coming months, as restaurants scramble to make sense of the new normal, it’s a simple pleasure that shouldn’t – and will not – be taken for granted.