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The risk and the reward: our post-COVID return to dining

Link and Pin Charlotte

Getting dressed up feels so strange now.

“People will see me in this,” I keep thinking as I pull on a floral print button up shirt, khaki colored joggers, and my only pair of Air Jordan Nike sneakers. I spritz a cloud of cologne into the air of my bathroom and step through it, a motion I’ve been doing since I was fifteen that now seems silly from weeks of obsolescence.

I cut a few stray hairs from my mustache and lean back to look at myself in the mirror. My at-home dye job and fade haircut need an update. I guess I can throw that on the calendar for next weekend.

“People will see me.” I again roll the thought around my head like a cat’s eye marble, amused at how foreign it became in just two short months.

On March 17th, Governor Roy Cooper ordered all North Carolina restaurants to close their dining rooms in an effort to flatten the curve of COVID-19 infections that at the time was threatening to outpace hospital capacity. On May 22nd, North Carolina entered “Phase 2” of our COVID-19 reopening plan, allowing restaurants to operate dining rooms at reduced capacity.

I didn’t grow up eating at restaurants.

Goldsboro North Carolina, my hometown, didn’t get its first Olive Garden or IHOP until I was in college. I graduated from Queens University of Charlotte before I understood the point of an appetizer, how to carry the decimal to calculate a tip, or had the courage to order anything more adventurous than a Diet Coke to drink.

As I moved through my twenties and slowly achieved the economic mobility that is so rare for someone with my upbringing, I began to see dining out as a sort of personal and communal touchstone. It was how I discovered the parts of me that were hidden under poverty, and how I made the emotional attachments that turn cities into homes.

I got my heart broken over brunch on the Zada Jane’s patio. I celebrated my college roommate’s wedding at Heist. I mixed clear and dark liquor cocktails at Pinky’s but never felt tipsy because of all the crab puppies I ate.

It is through dining, old restaurants, new restaurants, closed restaurants, bars I’d never visit, and bars I would drag my friends to five nights a week if they’d let me, that I have found a person that was always buried inside me even in a little town in eastern North Carolina.

It’s 8 PM and a tornado warning is just passing over Charlotte.

The storm was otherworldly in its ominousness. Here we were, preparing to enter the first dinner service of Phase 2. Scientists are still warning that a rushed return to public life could lead to a second wave of the global pandemic that’s already killed nearly 100,000 Americans. Debate raged on social media, existential questions about freedom, safety, science, and community. In the midst of it all, the sky turned gray and nature pelted the city with a direct hit severe thunderstorm that downed trees and destroyed homes.

More than one person reached the conclusion: this is a sign.

Now I have a choice to make. Do I listen to this warning? I double check my reservation again. I’ll have to leave soon if I want to be on time.

Should I be doing this? A pang of survivor’s guilt rolls in my heart. 100,000 lives have been claimed by this virus. They had families, dreams, milestones they still wanted to witness. And here’s me, participating in the risky plan to reconvene a lifestyle that caused so much damage.

What are we even risking it for, I wonder.

It’s hard to remember what it’s even like to sit down in a restaurant, to banter with a bartender, to hear the hushed conversations of a crowded dining room.

Is it safe? The messages from our government and public health officials are mixed and conflicting.

My own body refuses to give up its secrets. For all I know, I could’ve contracted asymptomatic coronavirus and developed antibodies months ago.

I don’t know if I’m protected. I don’t know if I’m vulnerable. I don’t know how many restaurants we will lose permanently if people like me don’t patronize their locations. I don’t know what’s on the other side of my door.

This is a dinner unlike any dinner I’ve ever considered, fraught with uncertainty and significance.

The curiosity takes control and I head to my car. I need to see what it’s like to be back out there. I have to remind myself what it is we’re risking losing.

I drive through Southend toward Link & Pin, a concept from Rob Duckworth that opened in November of last year. I pass by the patio Mac’s Speed Shop, crowded with Southenders. I see no masks, although I have my own on the passenger seat next to me.

The ability to self-police our interactions will be key in a safe Phase 2.

Our health officials have warned us that we should continue to social distance, limit unnecessary travel, and wear masks in public. If my drive down Southend is any indication, Memorial Day weekend has us just as reckless as we were on the St. Paddy’s Day weekend that preceded the Stay at Home order.

Link & Pin is as packed as it can legally be. Every available table and bar seat is occupied.

I try to take notes for a future review, commentary on the open windows that invite refreshing summer breezes through the dining room and how the decorative lamp posts shine light on the train station thematic. But my phone keeps refusing to open, unable to recognize my face through my mask. My own breath fogs up my glasses, stopping me from taking photos.

At my table my waiter and I awkwardly stumble through my questions and his answers. I feel like a baby deer learning how to walk.

We’ve taken for granted how the song and dance of dining room interaction is perfectly timed for speed, efficiency, and warmth. After two months away from it, it’s difficult to get back into step.

I order an Old Fashioned, pork dumplings, and fried flounder.

While I wait for my meal, I eavesdrop on a nearby couple. They’re on a first date, I assume, since they talk about their families and their hometowns in an interview style round of questions followed up with “how about yous.” I wonder how long they’ve been dating app matches, how electric the late night texts and FaceTime wine dates were. They both take long sips of their drinks through a slightly too long silence. Even if this is a bad date, it’s one they’ll never forget. They built anticipation for this date. They imagined how it would go. And now, they know. One way or the other, they know.

My dinner arrives, my first time in months eating the work of a professional chef that wasn’t first shoved in a styrofoam container and driven across town by a DoorDash driver. Taking a bite, I find the textures, heat, and flavors incomparable to what delivery or curbside pickup can provide. This is the meal as the chef intended it, as his studies and practice lead him to present it. I fully understand only now the difference between food and culinary arts.

Two of my favorite songs play in succession on the loudspeaker: Killer Queen by Queen and I Wanna Get Better by Bleachers.

I settle up with the waiter and leave a nice tip. I don’t know if he was furloughed during the Stay at Home order, or if he was an essential worker still risking his health and safety to give our city a taste of its culinary scene. Either way, he deserves it.

I walk back toward my car and scroll through the photos I took. They’re off-center, grainy, bad lighting. I’m out of practice. A text message distracts me from my self-criticism. A friend is asking me if I want to go grab a beer somewhere. We pick Billy Jack’s Shack, my favorite bar in Noda.

That’s when it clicks for me.

There are aspects of dining that feel like simple pleasures: a friendly waiter, the plating of a dish, sitting down in a space intentionally designed for dining, hearing your favorite song on the loudspeaker, people watching, a surprise beer with a friend. But they’re more than simple pleasures. They’re the natural behavior of a social species.

We need this. It’s what we do.

There’s a common Twitter joke about southerners “risking their lives to go to Chili’s.” I get it. It’s funny. But in that reduction, there is truth. Why do we do it? Because we need to.

Maybe we didn’t all need it Friday night, but we’ll all need it eventually. We’ll need it when our childhood best friend throws her baby shower. We’ll need it when your buddy says his wife just asked for a divorce and he needs a beer. We’ll need it for graduations and birthdays and first dates and vent sessions after work.

I don’t know how Phase 2 will go. I just know there’s something we need out there. I hope, however naively, that it doesn’t get snatched away from us again.

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