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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK | DEVRA FIRST

When we all gather again in restaurants, we will do so changed

It’s been a long, hard year. What have diners learned along the way?

Marlee Fowler and Alex McKane spoke with server Maximo Matias on the patio at Piattini on Newbury Street last week.
Marlee Fowler and Alex McKane spoke with server Maximo Matias on the patio at Piattini on Newbury Street last week.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

On March 9, 2020, I met one of my stepdaughters at a Fort Point gastropub. I don’t remember what we ate. We had a beer, maybe two. It was Monday evening and we were exhausted; we went home early. Now I wish we’d done the night justice, crawling through the neighborhood bars and restaurants until closing, tipping everyone wildly and buying rounds.

It was the last time I sat inside a restaurant dining room. A week later, Massachusetts shut down for indoor dining. It has been a year since we all gathered together carefree and unmasked around a restaurant table, assembled for a family occasion, a friends’ night out, an after-work happy hour, a romantic tete-a-tete. We took it for granted. We didn’t think twice.

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Hopefully we will be there again soon. There is optimism in the air. People are getting vaccinated, slowly but surely. With the warmer weather, we can look forward to patio season. The state’s indoor dining restrictions have also eased up, even as health experts continue to urge caution and restaurant workers await vaccination. They finally become eligible on Monday, having served the public all of these months. It is a day to celebrate, as it also marks the official return of outdoor dining in most Boston neighborhoods. (The North End follows April 1.)

But when we all gather again in restaurant dining rooms, we will do so changed. There is so much we have lost: loved ones, livelihoods, time; opportunities, experiences, connection. Some of our favorite places are gone for good — Bella Luna, Eastern Standard, the People’s Republik. It is hard to fathom we will never again occupy these spaces. They seemed fundamental, eternal.

Mannequins filled tables at the Back Deck restaurant that were empty for social distance reasons.
Mannequins filled tables at the Back Deck restaurant that were empty for social distance reasons.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

There is also so much we have learned. We have a new vocabulary, populated by words like “pivot” and “hibernation.” Seemingly overnight, entire businesses were overhauled. Restaurants became takeout joints, kitchens that fed emergency workers and communities in need, pop-up collectives, cocktail kit distribution centers, subscription meal services. Some pressed pause for the winter, in the hope and belief that things would turn around enough to carry on. Keeping faith while watching the coffers drain: That takes mettle. The word “resilience” was used again and again, but as Oleana chef-owner Ana Sortun said, “The ‘resilient’ word is not what’s happening to anybody in the restaurant business. It’s survival.”

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We learned how much restaurants mean to us, as an important engine for the economy — they generated more than $18 billion in Massachusetts in 2018 — but also so much more. They are the hubs in which we live our lives, do business, mark milestones, make memories. And their impact radiates outward. Before the pandemic, they were responsible for 1 in 10 jobs statewide, from teens pulling their first paychecks to employees who worked at the same place for decades. They have been a reliable source of employment for the estimated 250,000 undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts, who don’t qualify for unemployment or other federal assistance. It is to support these workers in particular that many businesses have stayed open. Restaurants also help sustain a host of ancillary industries, from farming and fishing to linen services. And they are integral to vibrant neighborhoods, symbiotic with shops and entertainment venues, boosting real estate values, increasing the safety of our streets.

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Natalia Santos and Andres Apodaca ate outside at Piattini on Newbury Street in Boston.
Natalia Santos and Andres Apodaca ate outside at Piattini on Newbury Street in Boston.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

We learned how challenging the restaurant business is, running on margins of 3 percent in the best of times, and how much more challenging it has become. Survival has often depended arbitrarily on the strength of partnerships with landlords, utility companies, and other providers. Third-party delivery services, so important to many during this time, were also charging exorbitant fees, sometimes as high as 30 percent. All of the suddenly necessary provisions, from masks to cleaning supplies to heat lamps to takeout containers, cost money. So does COVID testing for the whole shop when one employee’s roommate’s boyfriend has symptoms, and so do the days closed afterward without business coming in. We learned how important it is to tip well, and to be kind. We learned we could pay back a fraction of the hospitality we have enjoyed over the years with our support during a brutal, dark time.

A year and an eternity ago, I wrote, “I hope all levels of government take swift steps to ensure a future for the restaurant industry and its workers.” I did not imagine that relief would be something the industry would need to battle and beg for, that small business owners would be required to abstain from or alter operations in the name of public health, then left to shoulder the burdens of that. (That workers would carry the inevitable fallout was more predictable.) Industry leaders from Jody Adams to Nia Grace to Bessie King to Tony Maws to Royal C. Smith stepped up to advocate for financial assistance, help with rent and taxes, caps on delivery fees, the freedom to sell to-go cocktails, and so much more, creating organizations such as the Boston Black Hospitality Coalition and Mass Restaurants United to bring the plight of independent restaurants to the fore. At long last, a full year later, more federal aid for a wounded sector is on the way, with $28.6 billion for restaurants and other food businesses included in the new stimulus package.

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We learned more, too, about the challenges the restaurant business faces from inside, how the industry reflects the afflictions of the country as a whole.

Black-owned restaurants entered the pandemic at an economic disadvantage due to a historic lack of access to capital, less equipped to shoulder the additional costs of doing business. In Boston, there are only eight Black-owned businesses with full liquor licenses, out of around 1,100 licenses citywide. These licenses help make businesses profitable, but they are expensive and come with renewal fees many were unable to pay during the pandemic; the Boston Black Hospitality Coalition stepped in to cover those costs as needed for any Black-owned liquor license holder in the city, dipping into emergency funds to do so.

As some hatefully referred to COVID as the “China virus,” anti-Asian racism has escalated, with the shootings in Atlanta the most recent horrific example. Chinatown restaurants were among the first to experience a drop in business, which was already down 30 to 80 percent by February 2020, Massachusetts Restaurant Association president Bob Luz estimated. Today, that 80 percent drop is common throughout Chinatown, with previously thriving legacy businesses like China Pearl and Peach Farm teetering on the brink.

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Chinatown restaurants were hit hard early in the pandemic, and the situation has only worsened.
Chinatown restaurants were hit hard early in the pandemic, and the situation has only worsened.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

The inequities of tipping became ever more apparent, as gratuities dwindled along with the customer base. Sexual harassment of restaurant workers rose during the pandemic, according to a December study from the nonprofit organization One Fair Wage: In Massachusetts, 44 percent of respondents said there had been a notable increase in this sort of behavior, said president Saru Jayaraman. In an August report, One Fair Wage also found that Massachusetts has the second-highest race and gender wage gap for restaurant workers in the nation, tied with New York and behind Alabama — with Black women making about $8 less an hour than white men in the same positions. “To me, what this data pointed to is that Massachusetts suffers some race and gender inequities already that are really very much proliferated during this pandemic,” Jayaraman said of the reports.

The December study from One Fair Wage shared accounts from women staffers told to remove their masks so that customers might see what they looked like: “maskual harassment,” as the organization called it. We learned this year that a simple cloth face covering could be a flash point for so many simmering tensions. We wore them (or we didn’t), we hated them, we fought about them, and restaurant workers had to police our compliance with regulations around them. We argued, too, about transmission data, about restaurant restrictions, about the tensions between the interests of people and businesses, as if the two could be separated.

But we also came together. We learned what our city is, and what it can be. We saw innovation — born of pain, but innovation all the same. We questioned things that were the way they were simply because they always had been. Outdoor dining? Long may it reign. Imagine the strides in that realm made permanent. Imagine how much more fun it would be to live here year-round. There is no reason this cannot happen. Some of the changes made, ventures started, models implemented, and ideas hatched will find their way into the future, will make the dining scene of, say, 2025 stronger, better, more interesting.

We have that, and so much more, to look forward to.


Devra First can be reached at devra.first@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.