WARWICK – If this pandemic has confirmed anything for me, it’s that I’ll never fulfill my short-lived childhood dream of being a chef.
When I try to toast a Pop-Tart in the morning, I burn it. When I make frozen pizza at night, the middle part inevitably ends up tasting more like a cheesy ice cube. Not even the tub of chocolate ice cream from Newport Creamery that we keep in the freezer tastes like the real thing.
So when Governor Gina Raimondo announced that she was allowing restaurants to reopen for outdoor dining beginning Monday after months of being closed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, I refused to spend another night ordering takeout or baking Bagel Bites.
But here’s the thing about being first: You don’t have a lot of options. There weren’t very many restaurants that were ready to do business on Monday. Only a handful of spots on Federal Hill are opening for outdoor dining, and the fancy restaurants aren’t quite sure about placing $50 steaks on paper plates. Yes, Plant City is open, but if you couldn’t tell, I have the dining habits of a mature six-year-old.
So my partner Nora and I picked O’Rourke’s Bar & Grill, a classic Irish pub that I always thought was in Cranston (Mayor Allan Fung told me he agrees), but Google Maps claims is actually in Warwick. The area is called Pawtuxet Village, and folks like Nora, who grew up in the neighborhood, are taught from kindergarten to believe that the entire Revolutionary War was fought and won right here.
When I called to make dinner reservations on Monday morning, I kind of expected the vetting process to be similar to a credit check. The governor has asked restaurants to keep track of all reservations just in case someone falls ill and a thorough contact tracing process is needed. But the woman on the other end of the phone simply asked for my name and phone number and then offered a very practical piece of advice:
“Don’t forget to wear a winter coat,” she quipped, before telling me that it could be snowing outside and people would still be making reservations.
She didn’t even need to remind us to wear our masks. We already knew.
It definitely did not feel like the middle of May when we arrived shortly after 7:30 p.m. It was a breezy 54 degrees, so hoodies were more appropriate than “Knock it off” T-shirts. In fact, a woman sitting about 10 feet away from us showed up to the restaurant in business casual attire, but she disappeared and returned 15 minutes later wearing a sweatsuit. We were jealous.
Unlike some other restaurants, O’Rourke’s didn’t need to craft an entirely new floor plan to offer outdoor dining. On any warm night in the summer, you can find people drinking a few beers and eating Irish nachos at the same metal tables that were laid out on Monday, although now no diners can sit close to others. If anyone was prepared for coronavirus dining rules, it was this place.
While the ambiance may have felt familiar, the experience was clearly different. Every new patron entered the tent cautiously - all of us struggling to grasp proper mask etiquette. Every member of the staff wore face coverings, and most customers offered evidence that they may have once worn a mask, but of the 25 people that we saw sitting down for dinner or drinks, only a handful kept their masks on after the wait staff left their tables.
I asked our waitress about the mask rules, and she acknowledged that they are a little unclear. She said the staff determined that it was okay for people to take their masks off once drinks were delivered to the table. So we ordered two beers, a Sam Adams (because Revolutionary War) and a Whalers IPA (because we heart local).
The menus are printed on single sheets of paper and customers are handed plastic utensils that include one packet each of salt and pepper, all wrapped in a plastic package that sends your mind racing back to the middle school lunch room.
“Don’t order the prime rib,” said the nice woman who brought us our drinks. She was right. Cutting through a piece of steak with a plastic knife would have made up for all these weeks that our gyms have been closed.
We’re simple people, so it didn’t take long for us to make up our minds on what to order. Nora ordered a Reuben (because that’s what the Irish do) and I ordered a burger, medium and super plain (because that’s what children do).
As we waited for our meals, Nora kept talking about how beautiful the sky was and I kept looking around to see if any customers were doing anything funny. There was the group in one corner that bought a round of shots that could have been Jameson but was probably Fireball. There was another couple that looked relieved to be outside doing something somewhat normal again.
This isn’t a dinner review, but our food was delicious. With my burger came two small packets of ketchup that could have easily been stolen from McDonald’s, and I didn’t ask what kind of mustard they were offering. Our food was served in a plastic basket that made you feel as though you were at a high-end picnic. Nora said her Reuben tasted like summer, which I think is a good thing.
The temperature was dropping rapidly, so we ate quickly and asked for our check around 8:30 p.m. I asked our waitress what would happen to our table when we leave, and she said that everything we touched would be thrown in the trash.
She acknowledged that she was nervous about reopening. Restaurants were among the first businesses to close in March as coronavirus infections started to rise. But she explained that chairs and tables are wiped down with a special disinfectant, and the staff is instructed to wait at least 10 minutes before sitting new customers.
“I feel safe,” she told us.
So did we.