How to Eat Inside a Restaurant Again, According to Experts

Here are some tips from chefs and restaurant owners to make the most of your dining out experience.

pandemic how to eat in a restaurant
Design by Grace Han for Thrillist
Design by Grace Han for Thrillist

This story is a part of a Thrillist series helping our readers navigate and slowly return to the world. Be sure to always follow CDC guidelines and, most importantly, don't leave the house if you're experiencing fever, cough, shortness of breath, or other symptoms of COVID-19.

It’s been a year of sourdough starters, crusty takeout leftovers, and cooking fatigue. For most everyone who has remained cooped up inside for 15 months, it’s about time to go out for a meal and a strong cocktail. 

Yet how do we go back to casually slurping oysters, blowing out birthday cake candles, and dining family style in a not-quite-post-pandemic era, knowing what we all know now? How can we keep restaurant staff safe while also enjoying our metamorphosis from sweats and unwashed hair to functioning members of society ready to enjoy the perks of restaurant dining—like someone else doing the cooking—once more?

Although safety is the top priority, having a good time and unwinding is also important. Restaurant owners, bartenders, and chefs provide the answers on how to find the perfect balance for a memorable evening out.

Follow safety guidelines

Although the pandemic feels like it’s ending, new variants and the continued spread across the world means we’re not out of the woods yet. Although you may already be vaccinated, there’s no way to know whether everyone dining around you also is—so be respectful. 

“If you have a fever, stay home,” says Steven Salazar, the owner and bartender of Diversion Cocktails in Houston. “Only take off your mask when eating and drinking. Herd immunity is not here yet; be patient.”

Paolo Del Gatto, the operations manager at Socarrat Paella Bar in New York City, agrees: “Wear a mask when the server is taking an order [and cooperate] with managers and hosts when we ask for temperature checks and for contact tracing.” 

Everything is done out of an abundance of caution, so don’t take these guidelines as personal sleights against your restaurant experience. 

Connect with friends and family

If you have a crew of vaccinated friends and family, it’s now safe to hang out with them—both indoors and out—according to the CDC. “Find people who have the same comfort level and risk tolerance you do, then unwind together,” Salazar says. “There is always a venue that will suit your needs and requirements.” 

There are still risks when it comes to dining, but the risks vary depending on how spaced out the tables are and whether you’re dining indoors or outdoors. Some people, even after being vaccinated, will prefer to continue dining outdoors. Others are ready to appreciate restaurant interiors. Regardless, wrangle a group of friends on the same wavelength and enjoy a round of cocktails, some appetizers, and perhaps a family-style meal. 

Make reservations

“Guests need to understand that now, more than ever, things may take a bit longer than usual,” explains Chef Scott Cooper of Nomad Eatery in El Segundo, California. “Staffing is short and reservations really help to speed up the process.” If you show up for a walk-in meal, be patient when waiting to be seated and served. 

Ben Powell, the co-owner of Fable Lounge in Nashville, Tennessee, echoes this. “The best practice is to call ahead and request for assistance in the restaurant to help with accommodating your group. This helps ease the burden of a last-minute request,” he says. “All restaurants are passionate about ensuring the best quality they can to all of their guests.”

It’s especially important to call ahead if you’re planning on dining with a larger group. This will be beneficial for both your party and the restaurant in ensuring you have appropriate seating and service. 

Be kind and tip generously

It’s been a long year for everyone, but especially service workers who have made sure we’ve remained fed while risking their own health and safety. So tip, and tip generously! Tip more than you think you should tip and be polite and kind—we’ve all experienced challenges throughout the past year.

Going above and beyond with patience and kindness to all members of the staff truly helps to create a better time out on the town,” Powell says. “Everyone has been through hardships this past year and making everyone feel amazing goes a long way to cultivating an exquisite dining experience.”

Treat yourself

Cooper has missed the atmospheric sound of restaurants, complete with clanking utensils and laughter. “[I] highly suggest bringing good company [and] ordering a round of specialty cocktails and appetizers while laughing and enjoying your time out—it’s been long overdue and also the greatest noise to hear!”

If cocktails aren’t your thing, Gatto suggests wine instead. “Wine is an excellent choice because it needs very little handling and no utensils,” making it a perfect post-pandemic option.

Get recommendations and try something new

The staff know the menu and dishes best, so ask for suggestions and expand your gastronomic horizons. “Staff are always amicable and love to share what their current favorites are,” Powell explains. “Be sure to mention any preferences or dietary restrictions you or your guests may have so the team can ensure a delightful augmentation and steer you towards your new favorite cocktail, wine, or dish.”

If there’s a particular menu item you haven’t tried or a special with flare, order it to experience something new. “Being back in a restaurant is something worth celebrating, so add something special onto your meal, whether that’s splurging on a special bottle of wine, or trying an extra appetizer or two that you wouldn’t normally,” Cody McCain, the general manager of Elvie’s in Jackson, Mississippi, suggests. “You get an even better feel for the restaurant as a whole, and the restaurant benefits from the added business. Always be willing to try new things!"

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Kat Thompson is a staff writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn