May 27, 2020

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Common ground

Pandemic restrictions eat away at our collective community experience

Opinion

When the lockdown hit in March, I went abruptly from eating in restaurants two or three times a week — as part of my job as a restaurant reviewer and also as a regular food-loving person — to staying at home every night.

As the days trudged by, I realized I missed restaurant-going a lot — and not just for the food. When it came to "dining out," I missed the dining, but I also missed the "out" part.

This generalized feeling got some piercing specificity with news of the closure of Segovia, one of our city’s best restos. I remember a meal there last year at an outdoor table: the leisurely procession of small, perfect plates; the mellow sweetness of a late summer evening; the pleasure of watching people walking by on Stradbrook; the feeling that we were a small part of a big city.

That’s the kind of experience restaurants can offer, and it’s now at risk.

When it came to “dining out,” I missed the dining, but I also missed the “out” part.

There’s something valiant and hopeful about wanting to make a living from feeding people. Even during steady economic times, the restaurant business is risky, with narrow margins that rely on full houses to eke out a profit.

Those margins will be challenged if venues need to operate at half capacity to support social distancing, or if patrons are slow to come back, whether because of anxiety about their health or worry over their pocketbooks.

Urban theorists and community activists say the experience of shared spaces, such as restaurants, makes us more tolerant, more curious, more humane, more civilized.</p></p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / FREE PRESS FILES

Urban theorists and community activists say the experience of shared spaces, such as restaurants, makes us more tolerant, more curious, more humane, more civilized.

When our province is fully opened up, it’s hard to envision "the new normal" — as everyone keeps calling it — of the restaurant landscape.

Delivery-only 'ghost kitchens' offer alternative to usual haunts

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Crinkle fries complement a chicken sando from Mercy Me’s southern-style menu.						</p>
Crinkle fries complement a chicken sando from Mercy Me’s southern-style menu.

Posted: 22/05/2020 7:00 PM

So-called “ghost kitchens” — delivery-only restaurants that operate without a physical storefront — are part of a trend that’s been building across North America in recent years and seems set to accelerate with the current COVID-19 pandemic.

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As Segovia’s closing (though the announcement did not specifically blame the pandemic) makes clear, many venues might not return.

Certainly, it’s difficult to imagine the hard-to-get reservations, the crush of lines, the noise of crowded, high-ceilinged rooms — things that at one time might have been considered irritants but now hold an almost nostalgic lure.

Takeout and delivery options have been crucial during the pandemic. They’ve brought our favourite dishes to us at home, and they’ve been a lifeline for many struggling businesses.

There are drawbacks to the delivery model, however. Some foods don’t transport particularly well. Ramen purists will tell you that noodles need to hit painfully hot broth and then be completely consumed within eight minutes. Takeout French fries tend to wilt, even with steam holes in the corner of the carton. Crispy calamari can get sogged-out. Spaghetti in sauce can become stodgy.

As a hapless character on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt says while holding several paper bags of takeout food: "I didn’t know if waffles would travel well, so I also brought fish tacos." There’s a reason that’s funny.

Again, though, this is not just about the food. I get the draw of delivery services, which were proliferating even before COVID-19, especially when you just want to sit on the couch in soft pants on a cold January night after an exhausting workday.

Oh, to be out and about again, beneath eminently Instagrammable ceilings like that of Nonsuch Brewing Co.</p>

SASHA SEFTER / FREE PRESS FILES

Oh, to be out and about again, beneath eminently Instagrammable ceilings like that of Nonsuch Brewing Co.

But there’s something wonderful about exploring an unfamiliar North End neighbourhood in search of authentic Thai curry, or driving through the industrial area around Wall Street to find a small, happening outpost of hipster food and drink.

Restaurant spaces give us a lot, whether that’s the eminently Instagrammable ceilings at Nonsuch Brewing Co., the neoclassical elegance of the Fort Garry Palm Lounge, the retro coolness of Rae & Jerry’s, or the candy-coloured whimsy of Milksmith.

And there’s the simple experience of eating with other people, in a place other than your own home: the mundane small talk, the random interactions, the inadvertent eavesdropping, the unexpected bits of info from the waitstaff. (Over the years I’ve chatted with servers who are field biologists, filmmakers and linguists.)

Urban theorists and community activists tell us that the experience of shared spaces makes us more tolerant, more curious, more humane, more civilized.

I’ve enjoyed movies at Forth and played post-dinner ping pong at Underdogs. I’ve people-watched at The Common and jostled with sports fans on game night at Hargrave St. Market.

Sometimes I run into friends, or just friendly strangers. I recall being seated at one of those massive communal tables at Brazen Hall. Falling into conversation with my neighbour, we soon realized — this being a two-degrees-of-separation kind of town — we knew some of the same people.

Urban theorists and community activists tell us that the experience of shared spaces makes us more tolerant, more curious, more humane, more civilized.

As our restaurants face a difficult, uncertain future, I worry along with them. I do miss the food. But I really miss the company of other Winnipeggers.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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