What It’s Like Eating at a Restaurant Patio During COVID-19

On nerves, masks, and pandemic-era dining at Town Hall Brewery and CoV

My last visit to a Twin Cities restaurant was Saturday, March 14. I sat at the bar of Town Hall Brewery in Minneapolis, sipping a tap beer and enjoying a flight of bourbons. We were with friends, and, as I wrote about in a recent issue, we had a feeling this was going to be our last time out for a while.

The coronavirus pandemic has devastated the hospitality business: restaurants, bars, events, hotels. In this line of work, generally speaking, we don’t make things, we make things happen. We have conventions and business dinners and trips and charity fundraisers and pizza nights with our friends. COVID-19 put my family into an essential lockdown, only recently dipping our toes into socially distanced driveway glasses of wine and garage birthday parties.

Twelve weeks after that March night, we went back to a restaurant. Twice in the same day. At noon, we called Town Hall Brewery (I like symmetry) and made a reservation for lunch. My wife, two kids, and I arrived wearing face masks, as per the request on Town Hall’s website. We were seated in the shade of a tree on their expansive patio, the nearest table at least 10 feet away from us. All the staff are required to wear masks, based upon Minnesota’s Stay Safe Guidelines, and we weren’t sure what to do. I wanted to be courteous, so we tried to put our masks back on when she came to the table.

The reality is, it felt silly to try to put the mask back on. It’s not like a horn sounded to alert us when the server was coming. But the experience was terrific. It was nice to sit and eat and drink and laugh.

Brief side-note: The science on the efficacy of face masks is not 100% conclusive, but the CDC also recommends wearing them, based upon several studies. If a business wants me to wear a mask, I’m wearing a mask. To me, the mask is largely symbolic—it says, “I care about other people” and “We are all in this together.” The law in Minneapolis and St. Paul requires a mask for indoor public spaces, not outdoor. Current Minnesota guidelines “strongly recommend” wearing face masks at restaurants.

Feeling emboldened, we went out again for dinner. This time, with our friends Steve and Heidi. How would that feel? Sitting within 6 feet of a couple that’s been outside our bubble? We had a reservation at Cov in Edina, with their huge patio, and we wore masks from our car to our table, but that was the end of it. Our server wore a mask, and I could sense her smile beneath the fabric. She seemed so excited to be on the job.

I had a cocktail! Someone else made me a cocktail! The Nantucket Sour was so tasty, with rum, Norseman Falernum liqueur, and a red wine float. I was so entranced by it I forgot to take a photo! And I never forget to take photos. (Get the fried avocado appetizer, by the way.)

We said, “Cheers,” and clinked glasses, and wondered, “Was that OK?” It was OK—I think! I hope. And we had a delightful dinner, and people came to our table to say hi, and stayed far enough away that I felt fine about it, and everything just felt: normal. It was glorious. I’m not exaggerating. We had a fascinating conversation about everything going on in the world, and our worlds, and it reminded me of what I’ve been missing so much over the last three months. And what restaurants help facilitate: sitting down, catching up, laughing, community. I know everyone’s at a different space in their comfort zones, but I hope you’ll dip a toe into the world again and we’ll all figure this out together.