Rules of engagement for dining out in Aspen during the coronavirus pandemic
Dining out during this pandemic? You’re among the privileged 25% so act accordingly
The pressure of dining out in Aspen lately is not for the faint of heart (or wallet). After a robust summer season spent largely outdoors on patios, decks, and cobblestoned pedestrian malls, Aspen’s restaurant industry is teetering on the brink of shutdown once again. Pitkin County restaurants are currently operating at 25% maximum capacity, which means that each available seat is worth about four times as much as it would be during a normal season.
Let that sink in: Each seat represents quadruple the cost and will garner extra attention and scrutiny from staff to match. Are you ready for that?
Dining inside a restaurant during the coronavirus pandemic all but demands that we honor this implicit contract. As guests, we can strive to understand current limitations, check entitlement at the door, and offer up a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T for the folks risking their own well-being to offer a safe, hospitable atmosphere in which to enjoy one of Aspen’s greatest pleasures. Don’t be clueless. Follow this code:
RECOGNIZE that new reservations policies are not intended to crimp your date night or family outing. They help to protect businesses from the bad behavior and gross negligence that has, unfortunately, become the norm here in our “Relax, it’s Aspen” paradise. Gone are the days of making multiple reservations, picking one on a whim, and no-showing, no-calling to the others. Restaurants cannot afford to sacrifice usable seats due to indecision or contempt. Those who make a plan and stick to it will be rewarded with reimbursement of a reservation deposit. Those who don’t will suffer the clearly stated consequences.
So, arrive on time with the number of people indicated on your reservation. And yes, children do count toward occupancy numbers!
EXPECT table minimums or prix-fixe menus as standard practice. Some of these menus might run $150 for three courses, not including drinks, tax, or tip. This is the financial reality of pandemic dining, which is more of a luxury than ever before. Your mantra, if you choose to accept the mission: I am not entitled to the old way of dining out. I am not entitled to the old way of dining out. I am not entitled to the old way of ….
SCAN the menu card. Many restaurants are going contactless, so look for a table placard with QR code or Flowcode. Don’t just sit there, as I often did this summer, waiting for a server to drop menus. While it’s unfortunate that we’re prompted to use our screens at the table, this new method represents another degree of safety, one fewer “touchpoint.”
PROTECT the staff. Just like reservations policies and contactless menus, measures such as temperature testing upon arrival are intended to protect staff and prevent another restaurant shutdown. The aim is not to infringe on your personal freedom. During the course of a shift during peak season these next few weeks, a server might encounter dozens, perhaps hundreds, of guests. At The Little Nell, visitors are urged to wear masks as much as possible, even when seated and placing an order. This suggestion comes from a place of diligence and commitment to protecting worker safety.
One more time: Wear a mask when out in public or moving about within a restaurant. I find that keeping mine in a back pocket (not stuffed in a purse, which I might leave at the table on occasion) makes it easy to snatch and slip on quickly in case I forget. Many of us are spending a lot of time alone, at home, maskless. Forgetfulness happens, so plan for it.
EAT your meal in a reasonable amount of time — reasonable for a pandemic, that is. Many restaurants do mention limits: 90 minutes for a party of two or about two hours for larger groups, typically. Since your sole purpose for entering restaurant these days is to consume food you didn’t cook yourself with select friends or family members, save chitchat until after placing an order. Gone are the days of leisurely cocktails followed by a two-hour dinner plus a nightcap after the kitchen closes. We are not under normal circumstances.
Restaurant staff, meanwhile, would do well to manage expectations by gently reiterating this policy to customers upon check-in. One gastropub in town has a not-so-secret habit of cranking up the volume on speakers near patrons who are borderline overstaying their welcome — a gauche punishment I’ve witnessed twice since September. In neither instance did I hear anyone mention time considerations. Customers may not know about these limits or might get caught up in the excitement of a novel situation and be apt to lose track of time.
Bottom line: Do not linger after your meal is finished. Eat up, then leave your seat for someone else.
COMMUNICATE clearly and courteously, even with fellow diners. The new “outdoor” spaces that are popping up around town — semi-permanent structures at French Alpine Bistro and Jing; igloos at Bonnie’s Restaurant on Aspen Mountain; a glass-enclosed gazebo on the deck upstairs at Piñons — were all constructed with safe spacing and adequate ventilation in mind. So, announcing to neighbors that you’re cracking a window to relieve excess heat is the decent thing to do. We are all in this together.
TIP big. More than you might normally. Consider a generous tip as a social tax of sorts, as well as an investment to keep beloved restaurants afloat until the pandemic subsides. After all, please remember: You are part of the 25%.
Amanda Rae is the editor of “The Aspen Cookbook,” out now as a fundraiser for local restaurants. AspenCookbook.com
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