Last weekend I accidentally ate out for the first time since March.
My partner and I decided to grab a drink and a bite at a local wine bar, assuming we could order at the sidewalk window and then take the food to one of the high-tops set up in the street. We picked a table in an outside corner, far away from the dozen other patrons, and started to look over the menu on our phones. We were then surprised when a waiter came over, poured us water, and asked what we wanted to drink. We could have left — and maybe we should have left — but it all happened so fast. Suddenly, we were enjoying burrata and prosciutto plated by someone else and consumed by us. Besides our vigilance about masking, it was a momentarily magical return to the before times. But no one could know that we’d allowed ourselves this deeply guilty pleasure.
I’m outing myself now, obviously, but at the time, our meal felt clandestine and certainly not safe for Instagram. I know, as the pandemic trudges on, that dining out is risky, not just to myself, but to others, too. No matter how diligent I was about pulling up my mask when the waiter came, or how carefully we we repositioned our chairs so our backs were to other diners, all at least 10 feet away, or how well we tipped, we were still eating out during a pandemic. These days, that’s a shamable offense. That said, restaurants and bars are struggling, and with a total lack of federal support, their only option is to fill seats, and use social media to do so. Were we so wrong to dine out? Should we have buried our guilt and shared our plates on Instagram stories to support our local restaurant?
Recently, the New York Times reported on the new trend of sneaking a vacation and keeping it off social media to avoid criticism for traveling during the pandemic. But unlike booking a perfectly cottagecore weekend house — which, as one friend put it, feels a little “Marie Antoinette-ish” right now — or, worse, getting on a plane, going to restaurants has been condoned for months now. By June, every state had allowed restaurants to reopen in some capacity, whether that was dining outdoors only, with party limits, or with a capped indoor capacity. And even though most people know it’s a risk, the desire to support restaurants, to eat something you didn’t cook yourself, and to trust in the local and state officials who tell you it’s okay is strong.
Sarah Tinoco, like me, first found herself eating out by accident. Her family held an impromptu luncheon in the Chicago suburbs after her grandmother’s funeral in June, and she wound up on the outdoor patio of a local pizza chain with about 20 other funeralgoers. “I was quite uncomfortable throughout the services being exposed to so many people I didn’t know, and, of course, eating at the restaurant, exposing the staff to an additional 20-plus people that eventually gave up on social distancing after mourning the past 24 hours,” she said. Despite the initial discomfort, she’s eaten out three more times since then — though you wouldn’t know it from her Instagram or other social media accounts. She has, however, shared posts about the negative impacts of the virus, and the particular risks faced by essential workers. “I was afraid of being perceived as a hypocrite,” she said. “How could I ask for others to support restaurants and their workers by limiting exposure if I don’t do it myself?”
That fear of being perceived as being a hypocrite has been enough to stop people from being transparent on social media about their actions, though it’s not enough to keep them from going out altogether. “My husband and I went out for dinner last Saturday for the first time since March and I made the conscious choice not to post about it on social media,” said Charlotte V., who lives in New Orleans and asked to use a pseudonym. “It feels like setting a bad example and making things seem back to normal (when they aren’t, and shouldn’t be).” Maria P., who also asked not to use her real name, said she and her partner “never actually stopped going out the whole time” in the Scottsdale, Arizona, area, “and I feel extremely guilty about it and basically stopped using Instagram,” even though before the pandemic, her feed was nearly all food and drink photos. But posting about eating takeout in the park, when so many people were at home with kids or immunocompromised, just felt like rubbing it in.
The pandemic not only stifled “Look at what I ordered!” Instagram but also changed the way people talk about going to restaurants, if they admit to it at all. Rather than gush about the food or the experience, any story of dining out is usually prefaced with a slew of justifications and explanations about why this particular instance was okay. “It’s hard not to feel like you need to apologize in advance,” said Maria P., who jokingly recalled explaining to friends that “of course we wore masks, we only eat at outdoor places, we tip 30 to 100 percent!” On Twitter, @Livid_45 said basically 5 percent of a recent conversation she had about eating out was about how the food was, with the rest comprising how she researched the restaurant, the fact that she was alone, and an explanation of why she felt motivated to go. But even with the explanations, Charlotte V. is conflicted: “I can justify it by saying it was just a one-off for us and we’ll probably go back to ordering takeout for the foreseeable future, we wore masks when not eating, our waiter wore a mask, the tables were spread out and we had less contact with strangers than we would in the grocery store, but … all of that is justifying what I know is still risky behavior.”
So why choose to dine out if it’s so shameful? Some diners are seeking a sense of “normalcy,” whether that means a date night or letting someone else cook for their increasingly antsy kids for once. Others feel like it’s a risk they have to take in order to support restaurant owners and employees, all of whom were given the bullshit choice of going back to work or going broke. Everyone knows restaurants are struggling—Tom Colicchio tweeted that with outdoor dining, his restaurants are doing just 20 percent of their usual business. And that struggle is motivating a number of diners to dine out, even if they have concerns, in order to support local restaurants. Maria P. says her friends in Arizona are almost exclusively restaurant owners and industry workers and, knowing how hard they’re struggling, she’s found herself almost going out more than in pre-pandemic days. And while Charlotte V. says getting dressed up and eating a steak she didn’t cook herself was satisfying, “this is a restaurant that isn’t doing takeout at all, so supporting one of our local favorites felt good.”
Even though people aren’t posting about their dining experiences as much, they have been relying on Instagram to know where to go. Tinoco said she recently ate at Next, an Alinea Group restaurant in Chicago, and she admired the online transparency and professionalism about safety procedures. “I DMd with one of the line cooks at Alinea before booking Next; I asked him how he felt as a BOH [back-of-house] employee. He shared he felt the group was doing a good job at following their protocol, and that I should feel safe dining at any TAG [The Alinea Group] restaurant. That definitely helped ensure it was okay to book,” she said. She also decided against eating at one of her favorites, Rick Bayless’s Bar Sótano, because the restaurant recently said on Instagram that it’d set up socially distant indoor dining in case of rain. “The restaurant is an intimate, windowless subterranean space with an open kitchen directly next to the bar,” she said. “I imagined the workers were already working closely next to each other back there, but adding maskless patrons to the room just didn’t sit well with me. … I don’t want my favorite restaurants to suffer to the point of permanent closure, but I also don’t want their workers to suffer either.”
Then again, some diners have no qualms about posting. Kristin Eftoski, who lives in New Jersey, says she’s active on social media, and recently posted about getting sushi on the beach. And even though some of her family shamed her, she figured it was a good way to let her friends and neighbors know what’s good in the area, at a time when restaurants need public enthusiasm more than ever. “Posting on social media is a great way to provide added support and also a way to say thank you,” she said. “I’m a big believer in word of mouth. Instagram and TikTok work better for restaurants than Yelp ever did.”
A little social shaming isn’t a horrible thing; we should all still keep our behavior in check and err on the side of not dining out, as many professional restaurant critics have argued. But once again, the choice of whether to go out or not, and whether to post or not, shouldn’t be this fraught. If everyone had been paid by the federal government to stay home and close up shop from the get-go, we could be living like people in New Zealand, where life has basically returned to normal after an early, strict shutdown. And the government could still do that right now, but, you know, they won’t, so diners must feel responsible for the future of their favorite restaurants, while contending with judgment from their peers. It sucks, and it feels like there’s no right way to do things. Or, as Charlotte V. puts it, “There is no ethical consumption under capitalism or COVID.”