On Monday night, I ate dinner at a restaurant.
Two months ago, that would not have been a remarkable fact. I’ve been a food critic in some capacity for five years, the past year at the Tampa Bay Times. My job has been to dine out at restaurants several times a week.
But Monday was the first time in nearly two months that I sat at a restaurant and ate a meal, since the statewide closure Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered back in March to help curb the spread of COVID-19.
Just like those of us who remember the last time they touched another human being (March 13, tap on the shoulder), I remember the last time I ate in a restaurant before the pandemic shutdown — also March 13, Dr. BBQ, pork belly tacos.
I think a lot of us have thought about what our first meal back out would be like. I know I have. I imagined sitting at a busy bar over an icy martini and a dozen raw oysters. Then, a nice steak, or maybe a double-cut pork chop. I would order dessert. I would wear a fancy dress. And heels. And lipstick.
I didn’t imagine that I’d be seated at a table alone on a half-empty patio deck in a mask, a sweaty dress I’d been wearing all day and flip-flops. That’s what Monday was actually like.
I’d spent all day at restaurants, which were allowed to open for dine-in service for the first time since March 20. There are restrictions: Restaurants can only seat 25 percent of their usual capacity indoors, tables outside must be spaced six feet apart, parties larger than 10 are not allowed. I drove all over St. Petersburg while a colleague hit up spots in Tampa. Our discoveries were very similar: a small but gradual flow of eager diners; masked and gloved servers at some restaurants, but not all; abbreviated, single-use menus; sparsely seated dining rooms and packed patios.
By dinnertime, I had no idea where to go. It felt like such an important decision, and my indecisiveness a familiar conundrum. Without knowing where I would end up, I got in the car and drove toward the beach. On the way, I passed crowded seafood restaurants and thought about stopping, but the packed patios gave me too much anxiety.
Eventually, I ended up at Salt Rock Grill in Indian Shores. Their back patio overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway was open, and that sounded about as good an option as any. Though there was a 45-minute wait for a table — mandatory reservations are a thing of the future — and the hostess looked less than thrilled that my party-of-one would be taking up coveted real estate, I ended up getting a text just 10 minutes later telling me my table was ready.
Inside the restaurant, a massive construction project is underway, part of a new social distance-friendly renovation. A hostess led me through the dining space, past the smell of fresh paint and wood varnish to the outdoor patio, where roughly 12 tables sat spaced at least eight feet apart.
In the Before Times, I would have asked to sit at the bar, but under the current guidelines bar seating is not allowed. Still, I ordered my regular: a gin martini, slightly dirty, with olives.
Sitting outside on a deck surrounded by other humans was nice. Watching the day wind into evening from somewhere other than my back porch was nice. Drinking a martini out of a coupe glass was nice.
But it was also so weird. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was doing something I shouldn’t be. I noticed none of the servers were wearing masks, which surprised me, even though there is currently no law requiring restaurant staff to wear them. When my waitress, a friendly woman with a warm smile, came to take my order, I worried that she was standing too close. Or was I leaning in too close to her? Should I have leaned back when she leaned in?
As the gin warmed my head, I started to feel more comfortable. See, this isn’t so bad! I posted a photo of my cocktail on Instagram and watched the panicked messages from friends across the country roll in.
“Restaurants are open!?” a friend in New York asked.
“OMG so strange,” another one wrote. “Is it stressful?”
“Honestly, seeing this gave me anxiety,” a friend from New Orleans commented.
As with most Tampa Bay restaurants that opened Monday, the Salt Rock Grill menu was an abbreviated version of the restaurant’s usual offerings. Kitchens rely on regular vendors to supply them with food, and getting that supply chain back up and running could take weeks, even months in some cases. So if you go to your favorite restaurant and can’t get your favorite dish, that’s likely why.
I ordered crab cakes, which came with a Cajun remoulade, garlic mashed potatoes and a summer corn medley. The crab cakes were fluffy and perfectly golden; the potatoes were creamy and just the right bit of salty. Everything was great. But halfway through the meal, I realized I hadn’t really come for the food.
For me, loving restaurants is about all the stuff that surrounds the thing on your plate. It’s the buzz and hum of a busy dining room. It’s the friendly banter with bartenders and servers. It’s celebrating milestones with friends and family. It’s sitting alone at the bar and meeting strangers.
I ordered a glass of wine and watched the last bits of sunlight paint the tops of houses across the water a dusty pink. The sky turned purple and then grew dark. A new group of customers walked in, sun-kissed and fresh from the beach. A woman in a baseball cap clutched a Corona Hard Seltzer.
“We’re just so happy to be out at a restaurant!” she exclaimed to the server. “This is our favorite place.”
Two months ago, when all of this started, I quickly became conflicted about whether to tell readers to continue eating at restaurants. Now, I find myself in a similar scenario. But this time feels different. We understand now that social distancing has proved a powerful deterrent against the spread of the disease. We have seen the death tolls, and the case counts. We know more than we did back then.
If you do choose to dine out, please be respectful. Be patient. Be understanding. Restaurants are struggling, not only in the ways they have been struggling for the past two months, but in new ways. Is it ethical to reopen? Can they afford not to? It’s not an easy decision for any of the restaurant owners and workers I’ve talked to in recent days.
As my meal came to an end, I noticed a table of six in the corner. They started singing Happy Birthday, then broke out into applause. I drank the last of my wine and texted a girlfriend about a possible road trip to Key West. Everything seemed possible. Everyone seemed happy.
I started imagining a beach trip — margaritas and toes in the sand, raw oysters and smoked tuna dip on a restaurant patio at sunset.
“Restaurants AND beaches opened today!” I wrote to my friend, starting to feel giddy.
Her response: “Yeah, I’m not into that.”
Right. Of course. I was getting ahead of myself. As great as it felt to pretend like we were on a fast-track back to normal, I knew we were nowhere close to that. We might not be for a very long time.