What's it like to dine-in at restaurants in 'the new normal'?
Restaurants are reopening for dine-in with COVID-19 precautions in place. Here's my experience getting a taste of New Orleans' finest... in San Diego
Let's start with the main concern... Is it safe to eat out?
This all depends on where you live and how safe you personally feel. San Diego hasn't exactly been a Coronavirus-free environment. With safety precautions in place, I rationalized this outing with the goal of supporting my local go-to spot for Southern comfort food. In my circumstance, I felt safe eating out, but I wouldn't advice those who consider themselves "high risk" to go rushing out to eat just yet. Take some time to observe the cause and effect of these first stages in reopening before making that decision.
Plexiglass barriers between tables
The most noticeable changes
Social distancing and sanitation are the two biggest factors changing the environment and vibe when eating out. Louisiana Purchase opened only a year ago with a moderately sized, airy, indoor dining area, bar, and outdoor patio. It was designed to feel bigger than it actually was, and they did a good job delivering that with a side of stylish ambiance.
Louisiana Purchase decided to keep the seating arrangement the same around the patio, but instead separated the tables with huge suspended acrylic windows framed in wood. It's an easy to clean surface that did not interfere with the ambiance, nor did it take up any more space than you would normally leave between tables.
I was surprised to notice how much quieter the restaurant was, not from the lack of people, but from the dividers blocking chatter from neighboring dinner parties. I'd say they're nice enough to leave up. Although, the enormous panels that travelled the length of the bar were a little strange. It felt like I was ordering a drink from a bank teller.
Hard to tell, but there are acrylic panels lining the bar with just enough space at the bottom to pass you your drink.
The process of sanitizing anything and everything that is not disposable in a restaurant is a very strict practice today. It is a much needed practice in preventing the spread of COVID-19, but expect it to cut into the normal efficiency of service. It might take you a few minutes longer to get a menu and water, and don't be surprised if the wine list is still wet from sanitizing spray.
The only other not-so-normal outfit in today's dine-in experience was, of course, the face mask. Not only must all restaurant employees wear them, but customers as well, at least until you are seated. Face masks are also needed if you leave your table to use the restroom or step outside, and don't expect to get a seat or reservation without one.
Overall, it was a heartwarming experience with a soulful spread of food
It was unquestionably eerie dining out on a Friday, in a busy city, and not seeing anyone around. But it was also a breath of fresh air. It gave me a sense of optimism that we are on the path to recovery. Or at least that's how the comfort food and bourbon made me feel. Speaking of which, I was pleased to notice the quality of food and service had not been compromised by the pandemic. The service I received and observed was excellent, as if employees and customers have been yearning for human interaction and some normality. Louisiana Purchase's staff definitely made me feel grateful to be there.
Praline-Bourbon Old Fashion
Food & drink
I started with a traditional New Orleans libation, the Old Fashioned. This particular one uses a few ingredients outside the normal recipe to make it unique. From what I remember, it was Basil Hayden Bourbon, Praline bitters, Allspice, house-made Maple brown sugar, and an Orange peel. Simple. Bold. Delicious.
The Shellfish Gumbo was an excellent expression of traditional Southern Shrimp Gumbo, with the addition of crab, smoked fish, and the usual red beans, polk sausage, and ambrosia rice. Pungent in flavor and aroma, rich with salts and fats, nice little pockets of fresh parsley... it was the perfect dish to prime our palates for what was to come.
Collared Greens and Swine. Fried Chicken. And lastly, Candied Yams!
Fried Chicken and Collared Greens. It doesn't get more "Southern Comfort" than that. The greens were soft with a nice firmness upon biting in. It was covered in bacon fat, Creole spices, and spiked with pork sausage for good measure. The chicken tasted like it was loved and cared for before its sacrifice for this dish. Plump, juicy, tender, but with this sensationally crispy, savory, crust that was an absolute joy to eat through. These dishes are normally incredibly heavy and rich, but the ingredients and preparation were done so well, I did not feel weighed down at all... but then I was passed the yams.
Normally I don't gravitate towards side dishes this sweet, but the occasion seemed right, and if there was anyone who could prepare candied yams correctly, it's Chef Quinnton Austin. He came from NOLA, a world famous restaurant in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and with him, he brought the magical ability to create food that cradles you from the inside out. A few bites and I instantly felt as if I was swaddled in a cloth of my own joyous emotions (you can't eat this and not smile. For goodness sakes, it has toasted marshmallows on top!). After my last bite, I chased it with the watered down remains of my Old Fashioned and left the biggest tip I could afford. I felt revived.
I didn't realize until then how much I valued eating out, and not just to satiate myself, but to enjoy myself and the company of people equally passionate about the intricacies of food. Especially the history and culture behind these dishes. So I would like to devote this short article to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Creole cuisine is a uniquely American art with rich African-Caribbean history and culture behind it. I would like to thank our black community and stand with them in the fight for Human Rights while showing an indomitable appreciation for you, and the strong cultural influence you've had on me and my country. I owe you and your ancestors more than I could ever give. #BLM
BLM peaceful march through Hillcrest to North Park San Diego