Manitoba restaurants, shuttered for weeks during the COVID-19 pandemic, have begun a cautious phased reopening. The process involves ingenuity, adaptability and a whole lot of hand sanitizer.
As dining rooms start to operate at half-capacity, there have been reports of venues around the world promoting social distancing and attempting to replicate a buzzy, crowded atmosphere by filling seats with vintage mannequins, blow-up dolls and cardboard cut-outs, a horror-show approach I’m hoping local restaurateurs will avoid.
Creepy dummies aside, there are measures in place that aren’t exactly conducive to relaxing, elegant evenings out but are now part of the new dining experience: signs on doors explaining detailed procedures and protocols; questionnaires about travel, contacts and symptoms; masked and gloved servers; one-way traffic on the way to the bathrooms; those ever-present sanitizer bottles.
Other developments are accelerations of changes already underway before COVID-19 hit. Technology is increasingly crucial. You’ll be seeing more online menus and contactless payment methods. You might get a text to tell you your table is up (no more cramming into bottlenecked entryways or milling around in brunch lineups).
Some of these changes are handy but some are a huge pain in the neck, so one trend we could all embrace in these unprecedented times is patience. Restaurants are trying to figure out a safe, workable way to go forward, for patrons and for staff members. There will be glitches.
And of course, as with so many things in this anxious era, diners will have to find their own comfort levels. Some people might want to stick to outdoor spaces, and in the most perfect month of Manitoba’s brief and beautiful summers, why not? Meanwhile, takeout or delivery options, which were already expanding before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, will remain the preferred choices for a lot of folks.
As I ventured back into the restaurant world, I encountered a complicated mix of remembered pleasures and jarring new experiences. Here are three ways to eat in the so-called "new normal."
(909 Dorchester Ave., maque.ca)
A weeknight dinner on the patio at this small spot in the McMillan neighbourhood was my first in-person resto experience in more than two months. What a perfect way to return.
Máquè’s small shared plates, which draw on Asian flavours, are served up in a polished procession. Jewel-like beets, their sweetness balanced with sour-salty umeboshi dressing; brussels sprouts with a truffly sauce you mix in at the table — the freshness and immediacy of the food, the easy pacing of the serving were what I had been missing since March.
So what was new? The patio was technically busy — several people were turned away — but it didn’t feel busy, as it held only three tables set about two metres apart. (With this already small space at half-capacity, reservations are an absolute must.)
The server’s mask was another reminder of COVID-era conditions. He was unfailingly professional and polite, but masks do seem to cut down on the usual back-and-forth small talk. Other aspects were unchanged: while some restos have switched over to disposable dishes, for example, Máquè is sticking with real plates and cutlery outside.
One thing to keep in mind: I was at Máquè with my quarantine bubble (a.k.a. my family) because shared plates are, well, shared plates. This is an intimate way to eat.
529 Wellington Steakhouse
(529 Wellington Cres., 529wellington.ca)
This swanky steakhouse has a real advantage in reopening. The interior dining areas are already spread throughout a multi-storey 1912 mansion, and there’s a sheltered riverside patio in the back.
But perhaps you want the perks of luxe eating, except at home. While steakhouse classics might not seem like obvious takeaway food, they actually work pretty well.
The process is easy. I ordered and paid over the phone — and got to talk to actual live people, which is always nice. I went a bit early for my pickup time — my theory with takeout has always been that it’s better I wait for the food than the food waits for me — and the packed paper bags were brought to the door right on the button.
Ultra-rich chicken liver pâté and creamy-good mashed potatoes travelled very well, and the garlicky Caesar salad was dressed and tossed at home at the last minute. As for the red meat — well, steaks do need to rest (though possibly not for the 11 minutes it took me to drive home).
One thing with takeout is you can dine however you want. I felt this was no time to let standards drop and eat out of packages, though, so I got out the good serving dishes, some linen napkins and my grandmother’s wine glasses. (That’s one big bonus to upscale takeout: you’ll splurge on the food, but you’ll save on the wine.)
VJ’s Drive Inn
(170 Main St.)
Here’s what I loved about grabbing supper at this iconic Main Street spot, open for more than six decades and known for its irresistibly messy Winnipeg-style burgers: VJ’s "new normal" is very close to its old normal.
Eating in your parked car is the original social distancing. And if your food comes in a cardboard box, well, VJ’s burgers and fries have always come in a cardboard box.
The picnic tables are a little farther apart, and instead of patrons lining up and moving along through that skinny indoor space, orders are now taken outside and delivered outside. One important note: While in most places, COVID-19 has motivated a move toward cashless and even no-contact payment, VJs remains stubbornly cash-only.
That unchanging reliability is what I was craving, along with a lot of fried food. A VJ Special, some fries and a lemon-lime shake set me back about $18 plus tax. But having a summer evening very much like summer evenings of the past? That was priceless.
Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.