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Fine Dining in a Pandemic: Having Dinner Inside

One part of Uchi's dining space, which is limited to 50% capacity.EXPAND
One part of Uchi's dining space, which is limited to 50% capacity.
Taylor Adams

It was six minutes until the reservation time. I was exiting North Pearl Street from Woodall Rodgers Expressway, and I was thinking I should change the plans to simply grabbing sushi to go and sit at a park or something.

But sushi to go is never as good as in the restaurant, and canceling your reservation at a place with that little notice is just bad behavior, especially when you’ve reserved one of just a few available tables.

The destination was Uchi, which opened for in-house dining that day. Reservations are required — we made them online and got a follow-up call not only confirming the table, but providing a few protocols:

  • There’s no valet: Park in the back lot (which is normally reserved for valet).
  • Wear a mask at all times you are not at your table.
  • Each member of your party will be asked to give their name, as they’re tracking individuals who dine there.

OK, one can handle and appreciate those measures.

I never valet at Uchi or Uchiba — for future reference, there’s plenty of free parking on nearby side streets — but it wasn’t terrible to have prime parking on the property.

Putting a mask on before I got out of the car, I walked to the front of the building, which felt quiet without its normally busy valet stand and car line. What had been added were large decals to the ground, indicating how guests can keep their distance.

Many establishments are doing this; Uchi just has fancy, branded versions of decals to help people maintain distance from others.EXPAND
Many establishments are doing this; Uchi just has fancy, branded versions of decals to help people maintain distance from others.
Taylor Adams

A host stood at the doorway, speaking to the party ahead before coming to us. They were only taking in one party at a time to the dining room, which was limited at 50% capacity.

Walking in, we were greeted by two people behind a host stand: This was normal. What wasn’t was the sight of them masked and gloved. Sure, that’s a typical (and desired) state to see these days, but there was something about walking into a place you know and are used to looking a certain way and being slapped in the face with a reminder that a pandemic is going on.

This is a scene that might also make one wonder, once again: Is this really a good idea?

They did ask for my name (I wasn't the one who made the reservation) but just my first — which seems like an odd way to track people. They were serviceable and friendly, stating they have single-use, paper menus or QR codes on each table.

The QR code for menus is great for a pandemic, but something worth holding onto afterward. Aside from not wasting paper, it could save restaurant operators plenty of money any time they need to create new menus.

This one, though, was at an odd spot of the table — we were sitting at a corner booth of sorts, and the code was placed on the direct opposite corner of where we were, so one had to stand up and scan.

But the menu popped up on the phone, easily zoomable and readable. (Another bonus to this menu method: no more patrons shining a bright phone light on a reflective piece of paper in a dimly lit dining room.)

The game-changer for this dining experience with constant reminders that we're risking our lives every time we're out of the home came from Travis, our server. He showed up with a well-fitted mask that was surely hiding a smile. He joked along smoothly with the humor coming from our table (which was sometimes witty, sometimes lame).

I was recently with a friend who works front-of-house (in Normal Times) who said she wasn’t eager to go back to work because of safety and also because she felt she wouldn't be able to have the connection she normally thrives in with guests.

Travis proved that wrong. Whatever apprehension I had was put at ease by his attitude. It's an example of how dining in a restaurant offers so much that makes the experience worthwhile.

Uchi to go is fine, but it's much better when you can enjoy sake that's selected after a conversation with your server, who offers some personality throughout the evening.

For now, the bar at Uchi is closed.EXPAND
For now, the bar at Uchi is closed.
Taylor Adams

That's still the case when the dining room feels empty, with no parties occupying side-by-side tables. Only one person at a time is permitted in the restroom, and the bar seats are off limits for now. (This makes sense, though the thought of sitting at the bar watching experts prepare the fish has me longing for Normal Times even more.)

Before COVID-19, cleaning a table in front of guests wouldn't have been ideal — now it's mandatory, for cleanliness and perception. In the different dining room sections of Uchi are tables containing these items (paper towels, cleaner, etc.) — not the prettiest sight and a constant reminder of the time we're in.

Is eating in a restaurant's dining room weird right now? Yes. From the moment I put on a dress and heels, it was weird. I hadn't done such a thing since my last nicer meal out, which was 76 days prior at Homewood.

Walking in was weird, even when you want to see everyone in a mask, it's still a striking thing to see in a formal environment. Eating on a patio feels “safer” just by the notion of fresh air flow — there are some real hesitations to consider and get past if you want to dine in a restaurant now.

What was not weird was having phenomenal sashimi and experiencing the skills that come out of the pastry program at Uchi. It was a perfect night out, all things considered (a phrase I'm using too much of these days).

A break from the COVID talk: fried milk at Uchi is incredible. If nothing else, just go for this. (But you should also get nigiri and sashimi while you're there, too.)EXPAND
A break from the COVID talk: fried milk at Uchi is incredible. If nothing else, just go for this. (But you should also get nigiri and sashimi while you're there, too.)
Taylor Adams

We tried another, more casual restaurant a few nights later where they took our temperatures when we entered but didn't say we needed to wear masks (I did anyway). Staff members wore gloves and masks — though I did see a front-of-house employee mask up after leaving the kitchen, making me wonder what the back-of-house looked like.

When they brought over napkin-wrapped utensils, water glasses and plates, they had all the items wrapped in plastic.

Restaurants are handling serving now differently, hopefully with the best intentions while they try to reopen for the purpose of making sure they survive after the pandemic subsides.

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