The last time I ate at a restaurant was March 8 in a tony Miami neighborhood. It was brunch and the place was hopping with fashionable folks tipping back mimosas and sharing biscuits and frittatas. I ordered buttermilk pancakes with a side of bacon. I remember all of this vividly, not because the pancakes were extraordinarily fluffy, although they weren’t bad, but because I likely won’t have a similar dining experience for months, or perhaps years.
That night I flew back to Boston, and a couple of days later I started coughing uncontrollably, developed a fever, fatigue, and symptoms of a cold. Yada, yada, yuck. That’s a story for another day.
This is a story about dining. And last week, after more than three months of take-out and home cooking, thanks to unwanted sheltering and quarantining, I finally went out to eat. The words “out to eat” left me lightheaded and giddy. I texted friends, just like pre-pandemic times, and asked them if they wanted to join me for dinner at the Lawn on D in South Boston. The park, which was previously an adult playground filled with light-up swings and giant Jenga blocks, has been converted into a 700-seat, reservation-only restaurant. There are tables for parties of six or fewer as far as the eye can see, all neatly spaced six or more feet apart.
The menu, which you access through a QR code on your phone, was simple. It’s the same menu that was served in previous seasons and features standards such as hamburgers, hot dogs, soft pretzels, and fries. I think the most exotic dish was a buffalo chicken salad wrap. My burger was surprisingly good. Perhaps cooked a little longer than I’d like, but still juicy with a thick slab of deep red tomato and flavorful onions on the side. In the old days I would have leaned over and tasted what my friends ordered. But the age of reaching over and stealing fries has been suspended indefinitely.
Also over are the days of walking around a restaurant without wearing a mask, or table hopping, or hanging out at a bar. One of the rules at Lawn on D is if you’re not sitting at your table, you need to put your mask on.
But the crowd at opening night seemed unaware of the rules, and that’s why Chéz Lawn on D worries me. I saw some of the young denizens of South Boston (genus: Bro-tastic Basic-us) pushing tables together, or strolling from table-to-table without their masks on. Many followed the rules, but there were plenty who eschewed the regulations when they spied friends at other tables and went over to say hello, beer in hand.
None of this should have surprised me. I live in South Boston, where masks appear to be about as popular as cauliflower popsicles. According to my unofficial calculations, about 70 percent of the people I see out in the neighborhood don’t wear masks. Masks are worn as chin straps or inexplicably carried in hand. To me it’s baffling because if you’ve ever walked East or West Broadway in Southie you know that it’s nearly impossible to stay six feet from others on the sidewalk. Yet here they are, those Bros and Basics who are normally shoulder-to-shoulder at places such as Lincoln and Loco, strolling the neighborhood with naked faces.
It’s worse at M Street Beach, which, on a sunny pandemic day, is packed with Bros and Basics playing spikeball and standing around with the telltale red plastic cups in hand. For the past five-plus years the neighborhood has felt like fraternity and sorority graduate school. South Boston is now a campus for millennials looking to earn an advanced degree in partying and adulting. Parties I get. Not wearing a mask? Not so much.
Apologies, this is a restaurant review and not a diatribe against a subset of my neighbors. Although I suppose I’ve already slipped into full diatribe mode (sorry, not sorry). But let’s get back to the Bistro at the Lawn on D. Our waitress was sweet and gamely answered questions about safety protocols. She said she was looking forward to a busy summer after three months of not working. It was a beautiful night. I sat with friends who had entered my social bubble, drank rosé, and gawked at the crowd from a safe distance. It was almost like the good old days.
I made another reservation and returned the following afternoon for a pretzel (soft, maybe a tad too salty, but still satisfying). At one point the Boston police arrived to monitor the scene. An officer told a woman who was standing and talking to friends, sans mask, that she either needed to sit down at her own table or put her mask on. I silently cheered. She looked slightly bewildered at the request and then complied.
I asked my server if it was common for people to be socializing at other tables or walking around without masks. Not common, but it does happen, she said just as a couple in their 20s walked past us not wearing masks. Was she expected to police the rule?
“I’m afraid if I did that they would just turn around and walk out,” she said. “I haven’t worked in months, so I don’t want tell them to put their mask on.”
I’m not casting any blame on the Lawn on D, whose catering is run by Rebel Restaurants (which also owns Tony C’s Sports Bar & Grill and Temazcal Tequila Cantina), or the servers who were out spraying and wiping down tables at a rapid clip. Given that nearly the entirety of the Lawn on D is open air, the risk of transmission is much reduced over inside gatherings. But there are two things that stuck in my mind. The latest guidance from the CDC says you’re at higher risk of contracting the virus if you are within six feet of someone with COVID-19 for 15 or more minutes.
Additionally, a team of researchers in Texas and California compared COVID-19 infection rates in Italy and New York both before and after face masks were made mandatory. Both locations started to see infection rates flatten only after mandatory face mask measures were put in place, according to the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
These may simply be the worries of a paranoid man, but I fear once the Bros and Basics find out that the Lawn on D is open and arrive en masse for burgers and Chardonnay, the situation could be less than ideal. On my third trip (yes, I had a meal at Lawn on D every night last weekend), there were very few people having dinner or hanging out with a drink. I looked around and soaked up the quiet.
If capacity at the Lawn on D was dramatically scaled back perhaps the knot in my stomach would loosen. But just as this happy vision danced across my brain, a couple walked by not wearing masks. I pretended not to notice, and went back to my grilled chicken sandwich. I recommend ordering the chicken sandwich at the Lawn on D, perhaps with a side of blinders to help alleviate any stress you may experience from seeing fellow patrons not wearing masks as they walk about.