It’s a cold, wet Friday in Sydney. The kind of evening ideal for eating too much food in front of the television, rather than hitting the city for cocktails and cheese platters. However, the vast majority of open restaurants are at full capacity, and more than a few venues have a line of well-dressed customers at the door.
“Tonight is the first chance we’ve had to head out for dinner in months,” says 28-year-old Luke Holland, hands buried in a trench coat while waiting outside Pizza Fritta 180 in Surry Hills.
“I mean, it’s the first time anyone has been able to head out for dinner. There was no way my partner and I were staying home.”
When NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced cafes and restaurants could reopen with up to 10 diners at a time from May 15, many venues opening their reservations line were booked out for the weekend within 24 hours. (Bondi’s Corner House restaurant and bar has reported a waitlist of more than 4000 people keen to hire whole establishment for themselves and nine mates.)
The challenge for restaurant operators isn’t so much to attract customers during stage one of coronavirus restriction easing, but to maintain a warm atmosphere while social distancing rules and strict hygiene measures are in place.
For The Gantry at Walsh Bay’s Pier One Hotel, this involves enlisting a “hand sanitiser sommelier”.
“This is our east coast distillery sanitiser cart,” the sommelier explains to The Sun-Herald, presenting a drinks trolley of antibacterial handwash made by some of Australia’s best booze companies.
“Can I interest you in smelling the sanitisers before making a decision? The Brookie’s Gin one is my favourite.”
Little David Jones-style perfume sniffing strips are provided for guests to dip in the bottles and explore the selection.
Dining out while the coronavirus remains a threat is anything but normal, but safety is paramount. Gantry staff pour wine wearing latex gloves and diners are asked to pick up their own cutlery, napkin and glass from a tableside tray – essentially setting the table themselves.
There are no gloves on waitstaff at Surry Hills’ modern Indian restaurant Don’t Tell Aunty, but the Herald counts six sanitiser bottles at various stations around the dining room. Tables are wiped with a strong-smelling disinfectant between sittings.
“Many of the health guidelines from the NSW government are not black and white – you have to make your own judgements and use common sense,” says Don’t Tell Aunty’s owner-chef Jessi Singh.
“We’re encouraging staff to download the COVIDSafe app and checking their temperature when they come to work. If any customers are walking in without a booking, we’re taking their details should they need to be contacted.
“I think it’s much better to be paranoid than relaxed about the situation.”
By 5:30pm at Don’t Tell Aunty, four tables (spaced safely apart) are occupied by couples for the restaurants first dinner service in two months and everyone has a cocktail. One diner has poured their third glass of wine by 6pm, which is around the same time two late arrivals are seated.
“I feel bad for the late couple because now they only have one hour to eat,” says restaurant manager Varan Sawhney. “But it’s important to be strict with sitting times – we have another group of 10 diners arriving at 7pm.”
At Aqua Dining in Milsons Point, Bill Drakopoulos is offering three 90 minute sittings, seven nights a week, so he can afford to open the restaurant without raising the price of food.
“It’s a bit of a punt,” says the veteran restaurateur. “A restaurant should really only have two sittings in an evening. The big thing for us tonight has been to serve people on time and say ‘guys, we would love to have you stay longer, but this is how we’re approaching the current situation’.
“Everyone has been great about it. People are just glad to get out of the house and celebrate – we even had a wedding anniversary earlier. A lot of people have said ‘this is the last place we dined at before lockdown and we wanted it to be the first restaurant we returned to’.”
There are many advantages to dining out with only 10 customers in a restaurant. Food arrives promptly, a window seat is all but guaranteed, and glasses are never empty thanks to highly focused floor staff.
On the flipside, a hushed atmosphere means it’s easier to notice bad music and song repeats. (Has Slade’s Cum On Feel the Noize ever been called for twice in one night?) If a couple three tables over chooses to have a domestic, that argument going to travel through the whole dining room, no matter how whispered the row may be.
However, as Drakopoulos says, “it’s very exciting to be back”.
“This isn’t a profitable model at the moment, but that’s OK. There are things more important than money. We’re just happy to serve the community once again.”