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Chow Down

The uncertain return of restaurants

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Much has been said about the precarious state of the restaurant industry: whether it’s fair for delivery apps to thrive as restaurants barely break even, if restaurants should open dining rooms at half capacity, how the undocumented restaurant workers who quietly endure the least glamorous back-of-house jobs are the most vulnerable, and even whether the existing model of restaurants is worth saving.  

In a story from The Seattle Times published May 20, five Seattle chefs were asked to reflect on the experience of operating amidst the global pandemic and speculate about the future of dining; they expressed a combination of cautious optimism and fear. 

Many question the long-term financial viability of operating at half capacity or on takeout-only models given restaurants’ mounting piles of bills, the increase of home-cooking, and minimal assistance from the federal government. 

In the U-District, where many restaurants rely on business from students to stay afloat, the effects of remote learning have been pronounced for both new and established businesses. Newer restaurants like Off the Rez Cafe enjoyed positive customer reactions and strong sales prior to the pandemic, but briefly closing at the pandemic’s start set their business back, according to co-owner Cecilia Rikard.

Tak Kurachi, owner of U:Don Fresh Noodle Station, also experienced a drop in business.

“[The] U-District dynamic has really been destroyed by this pandemic,” Kurachi wrote in a text message. 

With that being said, it feels frivolous to discuss the triumphant return of restaurants when more pressing matters exist. However, reflecting on the last year of writing this column and reading students’ thoughts on the topic reminds me that restaurants are more than a means to satiate hunger. 

Sure, there’s a thrill to discovering a new restaurant and savoring a delicious meal. As many students pointed out in my informal survey of Reddit users and Instagram followers, replicating certain dishes, from fine-dining tasting menus to unfussy late-night drunk food, often requires technique, equipment, and ingredients that the average home chef lacks. Other foods simply do not travel well, collapsing into a soggy puddle while insulated inside plastic takeout containers. 

But the allure of restaurants comes not from the goods they provide but from the relationships we cultivate and the memories that form inside their walls. 

Students miss “bustling lively spaces,” as sophomore Andrea Scallon wrote on Instagram, and cafes that buzz with background chatter, reminding us of our humanity and affirming that we are never in this alone. 

Then there are the dinners we associate with traditions and significant milestones: graduations, birthdays, the end of finals week, as John Tumenbayar wrote on Reddit — and those that feel special merely because you and your friends finally agreed on a time to meet that works for everyone. 

In this time of social distancing, seemingly insignificant actions like holding a physical menu, pacing in front of the entrance as you and your friends wait for a table, and fighting over who will pay the bill take on new meaning. 

“I miss eating at [a] place that isn't 5 feet away from my desk,” wrote senior Andy Luong.

More importantly, students miss surrounding themselves with the people they love and forging new connections with the people who prepare their food.

“[I miss] small talk with the business owners,” sophomore Andrew Lee wrote. “It was nice to hear about what people outside of college are doing when I’m stuck on campus.”

Others fondly recalled the warmth and feelings of belonging associated with family-style dining.

Reading through these replies from students, I realized that the desire to dine out won’t disappear as easily as some doomsayers proclaim. 

Restaurants may operate differently in the short term with face mask-clad waiters and dining rooms converted to takeout packaging centers, but their roles as pillars of community, inseparable from the people and culture of a city, inspire a unique kind of devotion from their customers. As long as restaurant dining rooms provide us with opportunities to strengthen our connections to one another, students will yearn for a return to normal dining operations. 

When the time comes to safely do so, I look forward to seeing you there. 

Reach columnist Estey Chen at Twitter: @esteychen

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