After 102 days of code-red restrictions prohibiting eat-in service, local restaurants were able to once again open their dining rooms to the public last weekend.
I stopped by three businesses during the first few days of reopening for breakfast, lunch and dinner to get a taste (sorry) of what’s changed since our second lockdown.
While some establishments have opted to remain closed and continue with take-out and delivery, others were eager to welcome guests back into the fold — even with 25 per cent capacity limits, contact tracing requirements and household-only seating.
That eagerness was apparently mutual because it was near impossible to snag a table for dinner over the weekend. Calling around and browsing through OpenTable, an online restaurant reservation platform, led to many-a-dead-end. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised, it was Valentine’s weekend and only a quarter of the usual tables were available. But we were also in the midst of a polar vortex — staying home in temperatures approaching -45 C with the wind chill would’ve been entirely acceptable. Turns out, Winnipeggers are not fair-weather diners.
This second round of reopening feels different, thanks in no small part to the weather.
Last summer was the season of patios. Restaurants were able to expand their seating areas to sidewalks and parking lots and the public embraced outdoor eating and drinking with relative abandon. Patios aren’t a possibility in mid-February, which might leave some guests feeling understandably uneasy about spending time in an enclosed space with strangers nearby.
The rules around mask-wearing have also changed since our first lockdown. Service staff were wearing personal protective equipment long before masks became mandatory in September; diners, however, were still able to mill about mask-free for the better part of the summer. Now that masks are the norm, it feels very strange to be out in public without one, even briefly — face coverings are still required at restaurants, but can be removed when seated at your table.
It’s impossible to ignore how much the "new normal" has infiltrated the restaurant industry. Bottles of hand sanitizer, paper menus and coronavirus signage are ubiquitous and staff, having gone through all this before, are adept at balancing pandemic protocols with customer service. It’s a reality that’s both comforting and unsettling.
Despite some of the weirdness, it was exciting to be eating out after months without. I missed enjoying food prepared by someone else, chatting with servers and having a conversation across a table located somewhere other than my dining room. On all those accounts, the experience hit the spot.
Breakfast: The Nook Diner
43 Sherbrook St.
Saturday morning breakfast at The Nook was a regular tradition when we (myself and my partner) lived in the neighbourhood. Save for masks and a few tables blocked off to accommodate physical distancing, the diner’s homey atmosphere has remained unchanged.
We were greeted with a hearty hello when we walked through the door just before 10 a.m. and menus were on the table almost as soon as we sat down — service is lightning quick when dining capacity is limited; our meals also arrived within 10 minutes of ordering.
Mandatory contact tracing is one new aspect of dining, but it was a pretty minor part of the meal. While jotting down our order, the server also asked for our names, address and phone number in the event of a COVID-19 case being traced to the restaurant.
It might have been a case of absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder, but the meal itself was better than I expected. Eating eggs benedict — a dish I have yet to master at home — while drinking hot, watery coffee out of a white ceramic mug felt positively luxurious. It was also nice to see regulars chatting with staff over the counter.
The Nook, like many restaurants, is stuck straddling the line between takeout and dine-in business. Several times throughout our meal, delivery drivers and customers bundled against the elements stopped by to pick up breakfast to-go.
Lunch: The Forks Market Food Hall
1 Forks Market Rd.
People-watching is probably the thing I’ve missed most about being out in public and the recently reopened Forks Market is an ideal place to watch the world go by from a safe distance.
The long communal benches in the Food Hall have been replaced with roughly a dozen two- and four-seater tables. There are also dining tables scattered throughout the wings on the first floor.
On Sunday afternoon, about half of the food vendors remained closed and the rest were taking orders through plexiglass barriers. We stopped by Red Ember for wood-fired pizza and grabbed a beverage at The Common while waiting for our order — the bartender let us know that they were only serving alcohol to those who were seated and eating.
Again, the food was ready in minutes and I’m now a newly minted a fan of Red Ember’s Crete-Za pizza (a mix of dill pesto, goat cheddar and pickled onions).
Capacity is at 25 per cent throughout The Forks Market and while there were plenty of people inside eating, drinking and shopping, the building never felt crowded. Security was visible at the entrances and a guard moved through the dining area collecting personal information; contact tracing in a food hall seems like a challenging endeavour, so I was glad to see the due diligence. Cleaning staff were also wiping down tables in between guests.
In true Winnipeg fashion, we ran into someone we knew while out for lunch. After months in a bubble, having an impromptu in-person conversation with a familiar face was a special treat.
Dinner: Rae & Jerry’s Steak House
1405 Portage Ave.
My last normal pre-pandemic meal was at Rae & Jerry’s the weekend before Manitoba registered its first COVID-19 in March. We sat in the lounge with a big group of friends celebrating my birthday and, unknowingly, our last hurrah for a very long time. To say I was excited to return almost a year later would be an understatement.
I was positively giddy. So giddy, in fact, it took me almost an hour to pick out an outfit — something I didn’t realize would be a challenge, but when you’ve spent months living almost exclusively in yoga pants and sweatshirts, putting on real clothing is harder than expected.
We visited on a Tuesday because, for the reasons mentioned above, the restaurant was fully-booked over the weekend. Although, the day of the week doesn’t really matter since the whole place is a time-warp of ‘50s era decor, white tablecloths and uniformed servers. And some of those built-in traditions actually seem beneficial amid the pandemic. The host stand/coat check area, for example, is the perfect place to collect contact and household information when guests arrive, allowing wait staff to focus on food and drink service.
We settled into the giant red vinyl chairs in the lounge and enjoyed a very tasty cheeseburger and a very gravy-filled hot prime rib sandwich; my favourite thing about Rae & Jerry’s is the random mix of high-brow atmosphere and low-brow menu items. While previously only available in the dining room, we were also given the option to order off the full dinner menu.
Even on a weeknight, it was really nice to be able revisit our "old normal."
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.