The Joyful Fear Of Eating In A Restaurant Again

There are few things I've missed more than restaurants during these anxious pandemic months, and I think it's because, even more so than before, visiting a restaurant means stepping outside of your immediate, insular world. So, when New York City announced it would be entering "Phase Two" of its reopening and allowing bars and restaurants to serve patrons outdoors, I immediately made a reservation at one of our favorite neighborhood restaurants, Jacob's Pickles.

Known for its gigantic portions of Southern-influenced food, loud music, and generally raucous environment, Jacob's Pickles is a reliably excellent time. The problem, as any reasonable person knows, is that no amount of pretending that things are "normal" will actually make them that way, and even a visit to a restaurant you know as intimately as your own kitchen might not feel like it used to.

Even making the reservation felt scandalous, and the walk to the restaurant was exciting but tinged with dread. We'd been to Jacob's Pickles literally dozens of times and as regulars we had faith that the restaurant would be following the rules set down by the city. Still, we wondered about crowding, and if we'd be adequately distanced from the people walking past the restaurant on the sidewalk. Weeks of news clips showing maskless people trying to barge their way into businesses have reinforced that you're only as safe as the people around you.

Checking in with the hostess and being brought to a table helped to calm our fears, but also highlighted just how profoundly things have changed. Dining out is now an exercise in hypervigilance. Did the person at the table across from us just cough? Is our server wearing gloves? Should they be wearing gloves? Should we? The server is pouring us water instead of leaving the bottle: This means we interact with them more frequently (and they have to do more work!), but we don't have to worry about handling the bottle ourselves. Is that the best approach? The anxieties are endless.

Jacob's Pickles is the flagship restaurant of Pickle Hospitality, a group of five restaurants owned by Jacob Hadjigeorgis. I called him a couple of days after our meal to ask him what it was like to prepare for in-person service again. Hadjigeorgis said that given how sanitation- and procedure-focused the restaurant industry is anyway, it actually wasn't that challenging to figure out how to meet social distancing protocols. The challenge turned out to be far more existential: How could the restaurant support its employees and continue to be reliable within the community?

"This is an industry that works on razor-thin margins, so a lot of our costs have not been offset," Hadjigeorgis said. "We're still dealing with many of the same expenses that we've always had, with less business. So it's been a matter of finding a balance and being in survival mode."

Hearing Hadjigeorgis discuss the challenges of maintaining his businesses only reinforces how much we stand to lose as people, and as a society, if these businesses close. To once again find ourselves at a place we've eaten so many times before felt deeply, viscerally comforting. Life has shifted so dramatically that being able to return to some semblance of what things were like only three months ago was almost haunting. It definitely helped that Jacob's Pickles had created an environment that felt safe, and where the food was just as great as we remembered. But I think that maybe the most profound thing that's been missing from our quarantine lives has been the auxiliary relationships that are hard to maintain in an era of distance, and the ability to inhabit spaces that feel like home, but aren't.

I suspect this same dynamic is at play for many restaurant owners. "I'm just looking forward to still seeing a lot of familiar faces that I haven't seen in a long time," Hadjigeorgis said wistfully. "I think that's when it's really going to feel the most normal for me. When I get to catch up with all of the people who have helped build this restaurant group, and who have helped support us over the years."