I miss eating out.
Restaurants have shaped the last decade of my life. Food continues to be a central focus of my work.
Dinner at an Omaha restaurant is my job, my pleasure, a huge chunk of my identity, as big a part of my daily ritual as brushing my teeth, getting dressed and reading the news.
So yes, I miss eating out, but I also know this: I’m not ready to go back yet.
I’m not ready to go back because Covid-19 cases are rising in Douglas County. I’m not ready to go back because sitting inside an Omaha restaurant, even one taking every safety precaution, feels like an unnecessary risk to myself and to others. I’m not ready because it just feels a little…too soon.
And I know that a lot of Omaha chefs and restaurant employees share that feeling.
While many Omaha restaurants will open their dining rooms today, many others chose a “wait and see” approach for a wide variety of reasons, they said, among them a sense of unease and worry about the safety of their staff and customers.
Whether or not diners will return to banquettes and dine out amid masked and gloved staff remains to be seen.
“It’s nerve-wracking. It’s unsettling. There is no sense of ease, no sense of letdown,” said Jessica Joyce Urban, of Block 16, last week. The restaurant, which regularly has a long line of diners crammed into close quarters over the lunch hour and for special events, will not reopen its dining room until at least May 15, when they plan to re-evaluate the situation.
The restaurant reconfigured its space for curbside takeout and family meal service, so to reopen the dining room meant those services would have to end.
“Having people dine in has far more risk for our health and more risk financially,” she said. “We have to do what we think is best.”
David Utterback, the James Beard semifinalist who runs Benson’s Yoshitomo, was the first Omaha chef to post on social media saying his restaurant would not open. He has been followed by many others: Old Market staples La Buvette and M’s Pub, Marks Bistro in Dundee, Noli’s Pizzeria in the Blackstone District, Blue & Fly Asian Kitchen of 72nd Street and Modern Love Omaha, which posted a photo of their masked staff. In West Omaha, Dante postponed its original plans to reopen Tuesday and decided instead to continue focusing on curbside takeout because of the ongoing safety concerns.
“I wanted to be open,” Utterback said. “We were preparing to be open. But as I thought throughout the day, it seemed like less of a good idea.”
“No one here felt very good about (reopening.)”
Once Utterback ran the numbers, he realized, including staff, he’d only be able to seat about 16 diners in his restaurant. He couldn’t seat any diners at the long sushi bar, and a chef’s tasting sushi menu in close quarters is out of the question.
It’s also not financially possible for the restaurant to discontinue takeout and delivery services. Utterback envisioned a bottleneck of diners and delivery drivers at the door of his restaurant. He doesn’t have personal protection equipment to offer every member of his staff because he hasn’t been able to get it, so they would have to provide their own. And a diner can’t eat while wearing a mask.
“We can do the best we can, but the best we can is going to fall pretty short of total protection for our staff,” he said. “Once you start looking at it like that, it is easy to come to a decision.”
Restaurants that did plan to open their dining room posted about changes on social media.
J. Gilbert’s, in the Capitol District, said in an email to its customers it had put several new restrictions in place, including a touch-free payment option through a new app and a rearranged dining room to encourage social distancing. Curbside service is available.
Pitch Pizzeria is reopening its dining rooms by reservation only, to limit guests, and still offering curbside service.
And in Bellevue, Stella’s, which had closed entirely, is reopening for curbside takeout Tuesday after putting new safety measures into place. It made the announcement in a long, thoughtful Facebook post.
“We find ourselves struggling with finding the right balance of returning to business and being responsible,” the statement reads in part.
I want to be clear: I support every one of these restaurants, and I understand, as much as I can, the tough choices they’re being forced to make in what feels like a no-win situation. Our city’s restaurant scene was thriving before the pandemic. No one knows where — or when — any of this will end.
Joyce Urban said were Block 16 a larger restaurant physically, they might be making a different decision. And she said she understands why many restaurants will reopen today: they might face never opening again if they don’t do it now.
“Every spot has their own story,” she said. “They are making their own decisions based on what is best for that location.”
Diners have a decision to make, too.
I want to return to my favorite table at La Buvette more than you know. I’d love to get a cocktail at Mercury with friends, or sit on the patio at Nite Owl, or venture out to Dante for a morel mushroom pizza, since that season is right around the corner. I can’t wait for Dave Utterback to place a piece of sushi in my hand that I, in turn, pop directly into my mouth.
But those pleasures, for me, for now, will have to wait. I want to dine out again — I will dine out again. (In the meantime, I’ll keep the Takeout Chronicles coming.)
I’m choosing to dine out again it when it feels safe, or as safe as it can in our new world.
We’re not there yet.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said Dante planned to open its dining room Tuesday. The restaurant later changed its plans.