Restaurants / Openings

Dining Out in the Age of Coronavirus — What Houston Restaurants Look and Feel Like on Reopening

Some Spots Have Waiters in Masks, Some Don't — Inside a Tricky, Welcome Return

BY // 05.03.20
photography Shelby Hodge

It could have been a normal Sunday at River Oaks District, only this was Friday. And then it was the same on Saturday, as Houstonians hungry for social interaction headed to the chic enclave where restaurants were opening for the first time in more than six weeks.

The stores remained closed, and traffic was as light as it is on a typical Sunday. Valet parkers were absent. Yet, there was a certain vitality, a pent-up energy to the place, obviously inspired by long days and nights of social distancing. I will confess that as I sat down to dinner in Steak 48 on Friday night, I was on the verge of tears.

This reunion with a fraction of the life we once knew was heartbreaking as much as it was welcome. I was giddy to be dressed up, my husband in casual suit, our dinner mate in sports coat and slacks. To have perfection in service and food, to sip the icy vodka martinis served up with blue cheese olives, and to meet with our friend whom we had not seen in months was a pleasant jolt out of the somnolent state into which we had been catapulted by COVID-19.

At the same time, I could not help but think of all our valet-parking friends who have taken such good care of us (yes, the generous tips helped) for two decades or more, these men and women out of work. Our beloved caterers, event planners, florists, waiters … the list goes on and on for all of those who have lost their jobs and for whom my heart breaks.

Blessed are we who have the financial stamina to dine out or order curbside pickup. Clearly, there are many with those blessings. Steak 48, abiding by the 25 percent cap on occupancy, was almost immediately completely booked for the next three weeks soon after Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced that restaurant dining rooms would be reopening. Le Colonial reports that the phones were ringing for reservations even as the governor was speaking.

Our dinner at Steak 48 was just like old times — other than the added concern over possible coronavirus infection. The fit and fine young ladies who have always held court at the  check-in desk, in their form-fitting black frocks, were there to welcome us, unencumbered by gloves or masks. The atmosphere was, as it always is, beyond welcoming.

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The noticeable change since we last visited the River Oaks District steakhouse was the massive floral arrangements that rose above every other table. It was Steak 48’s way of glamorously separating tables — an ingenious, if necessary, alteration to the dining room that had guests feasting amid a flower garden. Yes, the blossoms were artificial. But so realistic were they that their deception could be determined only by touching.

Steak 48 is following CDC requirements and cleaning, cleaning, cleaning (waiters are required to sanitize their hands before each time they approach a table). Extra staff has been hired to sanitize the restrooms after each use. All employees’ temperatures are taken before coming to work. And on and on.

Steak 48 (Photo by Shelby Hodge)
Bountiful arrangements of flowers separate tables as Steak 48 works to limit occupancy to the dictated 25 percent. (Photo by Shelby Hodge)

The luxury of dining at this Valhalla of steakhouses, the luxury that we enjoyed pre-coronavirus, was in place. Of course, the menus were disposable. But Steak 48’s standard flatware and china were on the table. The waitstaff maintained its sophisticated cordiality, sans masks or gloves, with reassurance that all was copacetic. The experience was perfection as long as you weren’t funny about the stable of hostesses and the lack of masks and gloves.

As restaurateur Benjamin Berg told PaperCity earlier in the week, “Nobody wants to dine in a hospital.”

To ensure the perfection of this opening and the strict adherence to safety protocols, co-owner Jeff Mastro and senior vice president Oliver Badgio flew in from home base in Phoenix to oversee the reopening of the River Oaks Steak 48, with the original in Phoenix set to reopen its dining room in a few weeks.

We returned to River Oaks District on Saturday night, checking out the restaurant scene once again. Hopdoddy burgers had its fair share of customers dining outside, while the ever-popular Toulouse patio was packed — at least as much as it could be, with the 25 percent occupancy mandate. Waiters wore masks, no gloves.

Our dinner at Le Colonial was splendid as expected. We were there too early to enjoy patio dining, as the sun did not dip behind the apartment building to the west until well after 7 pm. The only reservation available early Saturday afternoon for Saturday night was 6 pm. As we arrived, we noted numerous to-go bags waiting for pickup.

We were heartily greeted by both maître d’ Suzanne Nagel and general manager and sommelier Trevor Wiedeman; both wore gloves and masks, as did every member of the waitstaff. Wiedeman explained that in the kitchen, even greater precautions are taken.

Everyone in the kitchen was outfitted with special hair nets, gloves, and masks. Sanitizer dispensers could be found throughout the restaurant. Downstairs bar seating was closed.

Across town, all the way to downtown, Vic & Anthony’s, the fabulous decadent steakhouse, is also open for business. Over the weekend, hosts were not wearing masks or gloves and asked diners if they preferred that their waiter wear a mask. If guests were so inclined, at least one waiter donned a kerchief rather than something resembling a medical mask.

It is clear that during this learning period of restaurants reopening, interpretations and procedures vary. Feeling the biggest challenge lies with the fine-dining restaurants, where delivering a luxury experience as well as a safe environment is a tricky business.

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