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Venturing Out: As a Critic And As a Diner, Returning To a Dine-In Restaurant Felt Unfamiliar — At First 

click to enlarge SANFORD NOWLIN
  • Sanford Nowlin
A mask might just be the perfect accessory for a restaurant critic preferring to remain incognito.

One could even modify it to cover more of the face and not stand out too much. However, any disguise but a wig and false moustache is out the window when it comes time to actually eat. Turns out pandemic precautions offer no benefit — other than the obvious community health factor.

Beyond the face-covering considerations, when it comes to restaurant dining, my biggest consideration is the same as everybody else’s: when do I feel comfortable doing it again?

I would still be waiting if I hadn’t been invited to the soft re-opening of seasonal American fare restaurant Clementine by its owners, John and Elise Russ. It’s worth a disclosure here that in my un-masked life as an architect, I designed the space, and being intimately acquainted with it vastly increased my comfort factor.

Even so, I expected a certain awkwardness due to all the rules and regulations now required of food-service businesses during the pandemic. I won’t be commenting on the food during my visit, except to say the kitchen kept its skills honed during closure by turning out take-out meals.

That aside, here’s how the evening went.

Of course, Clementine required reservations — and, since I know the owners, there was no point in making them under another name as I often do. In order to avoid crowding at the entry, we were required to call from the parking lot to announce our arrival, at which time staff would ask us either to wait or enter.

The system isn’t designed for parties coming from different locations, though, and I was the first to arrive as my small group of dining companions were still on their way. This gave me a little extra time to observe how Clementine had reconfigured the seating to conform to spacing requirements. The change wasn’t as jarring as I had feared.

Normally, when laying out a restaurant, the intent is to maximize seating while still maintaining an uncrowded feeling. More seats make for more revenue — or they once did. At Clementine, part of that solution included a large, community table. With big groups discouraged under new rules, the community table was taking up valuable space and had to go. Along with the whole concept of communal seating, it may be gone for a long time.

My earlier arrival also allowed me to watch the wipe-down process for my group’s table-to-be. Although considered easy to clean, the custom, whitewashed oak tabletops — newly refinished during the shutdown — were never actually designed to be sanitized between seatings. Fortunately, they should hold up.

The chairs weren’t selected with constant sanitizing in mind either, although they also appeared conducive to the wipe downs. All-metal, they have no nooks and crannies, and the server easily cleaned every exposed surface but the seat bottom. Restaurants with upholstered seating will have a harder time of it.
Clementine and other restaurants with outdoor seating, on the other hand, also have another perceived safety advantage, even in hot-as-hell Texas, since there’s no worry of air conditioning blowing around infectious particles.

We were required to wear masks to enter the restaurant, but once at the table, they could come off — except when heading to the bathroom. Clementine chose to provide a small paper packet to put your mask in while dining, “in case you didn’t want to put it on the table.”

Servers, as well as everyone in the kitchen, also wore masks and gloves, and they changed the latter frequently. Another design-trend observation: all kitchens can’t be made open to public view, but where they are, it’s reassuring to be able to see that your food is being carefully prepared.

The masked and gloved servers weren’t as off-putting as I had imagined. It’s amazing how quickly we all adapt. They only set out napkins and serving ware only after parties were seated. They also changed plates and utensils after every course and printed and delivered single-use menus to us more than once during the course of the evening. The entrées arrived on individual plates, but we were perfectly happy serving ourselves from common platters of vegetables and sides that came with large serving spoons.

As our initial misgivings melted away, the evening ended as they often did pre-pandemic. Lingering over desserts and wine, we were among the last to leave.

So, the lesson learned may be this: venture out if you feel ready, but choose your companions and restaurants wisely — and in the case of the latter, follow their rules and guidelines. When we critics can get back to our jobs, under whatever criteria may evolve to suit the new normal, we’ll be able to help you with 50% of that equation.

So many restaurants, so little time. Find out the latest San Antonio dining news with our Flavor Friday Newsletter.

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