Dubai: Last Friday, friends of mine called and suggested going out to dinner. We went through our mental list of restaurants and made a few calls for a reservation.
“Sorry, we are fully booked,” several hostesses duly informed us over the phone.
It seems everyone in the city had all made plans to eat out. We eventually managed to weasel our way to a 9.30pm table at Ce La Vi, a relatively new Pan-Asian concept located on the 54th floor of the Address Sky View Hotel.
The restaurant was buzzing. The music, the energy and, best of all, people enjoying a fun night out in a city where just two months ago, the streets were deserted.
It’s not just the restaurant that was full of life - the entire city felt alive.
If you step outside of your home in Dubai, you’ll notice the streets are loaded with cars, the beaches are full, cafes are filled with lots of young ‘work-from-home’ types sitting with their laptops and people are out shopping in malls. Life seems to be getting back to normal.
But things aren’t always what they seem
Although some restaurants are crowded again, it is important to note that the food and beverage landscape has been impacted significantly - and some say permanently by COVID-19. There’s a host of new requirements governing dining experiences. Customers are also viewing restaurants and bars in a new light, with a renewed focus on health and safety which ultimately changes the way restaurateurs need to handle dining for guests.
Gulf News spoke to the Vice-President of Restaurants and Bars at JA Resorts and Hotels, Rob Cunningham, who reveals the real impact of COVID-19. “A lot of international production has slowed or completely stopped resulting in limited-to-zero availability of certain items.
"While we do expect this to return to normal levels in coming months, we have had to use our initiative over the past few weeks. We have been working closely with our suppliers to come up with alternative solutions for missing ingredients and chefs have been changing dishes creatively when required.”
Dubai restaurants fighting back: Killing the virus and the fear
Restaurants are doing their best at tackling any fears people might have about catching the virus while dining out. Group Executive Chef Brian Voelzing is with Lincoln Hospitality, which manages the popular La Serre Bistro & Boulangerie, The Loft at Dubai Opera, Distillery Gastropub and Taikun.
“When guests arrive in the restaurant, we take their temperature to ensure they do not have a fever. Hand sanitizers have been placed in the entrance of the restaurants, as well as on every table.
“We have spaced our tables out, and guests are now seated two meters apart from one another to ensure social distancing. We have limited seating capacity and the bar is not open for guests to stand at.
"We record each member of staff’s daily body temperature; all staff are required to wear gloves and masks which are changed with every table. We have also brought on additional cleaning staff for daily and overnight sanitization of the restaurant.”
Michel Akiki, of Seven Sisters, a restaurant and bar in Business Bay, has gone a step further with his dining venue to ensure customer safety. “In addition to social distancing of two metres implemented between each table and temperatures measured on arrival, we decided to serve our cutlery is served in enclosed bags to ensure cleanliness.”
Izu Ani, a Dubai based restauranteur, also explained how his DIFC restaurant Gaia is remaining fully compliant with the regulations... but has still managed to maintain the same pre-COVID-19 ambience. I dined there two Thursdays ago and can confirm that it felt “normal” again.
“We decided to keep the tables as they are - which means our guests can only sit at alternative tables, Ani said. "But we wanted to keep all of them in place so we can create the same energy and ambience, and so that they aren’t put off or influenced by any visual representations of the pandemic.
"When you see something is missing or looks empty, it reminds you of everything going on in the world. And we want to provide an escape from that.”
Cunningham of JA Resorts also addresses the importance of restaurant ambience and the challenge of creating an atmosphere that is purpose-built to seat a full capacity of 100 per cent.
“We all know a restaurant is at its best when it is full of people and the vibe is exciting and engaging for both guest and team members. It can also be frustrating for a restaurant team to service an empty space. So I encouraged my F&B team to really get creative with space.”
The QR code menu
Almost all restaurants in Dubai have launched QR code menus, which can only be done in a city, where literally almost the entire population has a smartphone. Group Executive Chef Voelzing elaborates that all their restaurants have implemented QR code menus.
“Having our menus digitally displayed through a QR code on every table is our way of ensuring there is less contact between server and guest,” Voelzig added.
QR code menus allow residents to access the menu on their phone, rather than touch physical menus, which would then need to be sanitised. This also saves a restaurant time.
Then and now?
Voelzing also addresses the reality of the post-pandemic dining era.
“We are very fortunate to have a loyal customer base who continue to visit our restaurants. I certainly believe the demand to dine out is still there but as we are taking many safety precautions to ensure our guests and staff safety, we are ultimately losing out on some business.
"Having fewer tables in the restaurant and limiting capacity is certainly necessary at this point for safety reasons. But it also has the drawback of turning guests away when we have reached that capacity and the restaurant isn’t necessarily as full as could be.”
Evgeny Kuzin is Chairman and co-founder of Bulldozer Group, the company that manages Scalini, an Italian restaurant at the Four Seasons Jumeirah.
“We can really tell that people have missed dining at premium restaurants, getting dressed up, meeting friends and family and sharing a meal together. Things have gradually improved as people have felt safer to go out. Weekends are strong at the moment and we are almost fully booked while adhering to the social distancing requirements and capacity percentage."
"I believe that people will return to normal as soon as possible and that restaurants will be as busy as they were before. We have already seen such a promising start. Times of crisis don’t last forever, if you are strategic and adaptable you can get through anything.”
Akiki of Seven Sister said “We have had a really amazing response since reopening and feel grateful to have built such a loyal client base. Our brunch, which is one of those really lively experiences and organised weekly in collaboration with LUV Events, is now operating at 50 per cent capacity.
"So many of our guests are on a waiting list for the next weekend. It really shows how excited people are to get back to going out. We have also noticed a gradual increase in bookings across all days of the week, and are seeing more and more guests drawn into the venue by our happy hour offer.
"However, our ladies’ night remains one of the strongest events.”
While Gaia is also enjoying a strong return to the scene. “We are so humbled by the response to our re-opening, we have had so much support from the community. It just shows that people want life to return to normal as soon as possible.
"It’s been gradual, as people have had to readjust to going out again and social distancing means that we can’t fill all of our tables at the moment. But we are at capacity throughout the weekends and have really improved during the week.”
The future of dining
“Will things ever get back to normal?” is the question on everyone's lips... not least of restauranteurs. The last couple of weeks have made it clear that people do want to go out and enjoy their favourite hotspots again. And the precautions these destinations are taking have clearly made many feel comfortable enough to leave their homes and trust a restaurant to feed them.
Voelzing has a theory - “I believe many of the safety precautions restaurants are taking will become the new normal until a vaccine is created. The safety of guests and staff should be a priority in all businesses, so I believe we will continue to have limitations on capacity, mandatory face masks, temperature checks upon arrival and hand sanitizer throughout all restaurants and public areas until we get through this.
"I am very positive about the recovery of the hospitality industry in the GCC.”
Live with it... for now
“The way I see it, this is a temporary change,” Ani said. “We are social beings, we need to interact, to meet, hug, and spend time with each other. Dining together is a ritual. Sharing food, memories and experiences with loved ones is something we have enjoyed since the beginning of time, and I believe we will continue to do so long after COVID-19 has left us.”
Buffets, brunches and sharing
Globally, no one is - or should be - allowed to serve buffets. Both operators and consumers are moving away from the traditional buffet set-up moving forward, a fact that would make any gourmet diner like myself rejoice.
Cunningham agrees: “I’m confident that guests will start to reject the buffet approach where we have large areas of food on display in the open air. People will be looking for a change that reflects a health and safety conscious environment.
"I believe they will seek interactive experiences still, but now personalized to their taste and cooked to order. I also believe that people are becoming more aware of sustainability in general and realize buffets are one of the leading causes of food waste within hotels and restaurants.”
The same applies to buffet brunches, the atmosphere of brunch can easily be achieved with served-to-table dishes, which many people tend to prefer anyways, Buffets are just a way to save restaurants money. Doing anything in bulk has long-term savings.
Cunningham highlights how he converted their “all you can eat” brunch to a serve-to-table brunch, which includes unlimited pizza, wings and beverages for Dh199 per person at their sports bar Offside.
So, is it all safe and sound?
Restaurants have done pretty much everything they can possibly do to protect customers since restrictions being eased. But what does a doctor have to say about dining out?
Dr. Shayam Raja Mohan, a specialist in internal medicine at Prime Hospital, agrees that a home is the safest place to be. Getting back out there could still pose some risk for your health.
"There’s no denying that the more you are out of the house, the higher the chance of exposure."
But the good doctor also believes that measures restaurants are taking are adequate to combat COVID-19 infections.
“Yes, these measures are adequate to combat COVID-19 infections, as long as both parties follow the rules. It is really important that customers and staff are checked for fever prior to entering restaurants and social distance needs to be strictly maintained in restaurants as well among the customers. Ideally, you should only dine with your family and never more than four on a table.”
Restaurants should also keep fliers on each table briefing (and constantly reminding) people about social distancing and hand hygiene practices.”
A few missing elements, though
Since different customers use the same table, this could exponentially increase the chance of infections, as a result, restaurants should have proper ventilation for better air exchange.
Restaurants should also consider providing customers with paper bags so that they can keep their masks in the bag instead of on the table or around their necks. This ensures they stay clean.
Dr. Shayam reassures all of us that dining out shouldn’t be something to fear. It will just take both diner and restaurateur to follow the rules properly in order to create a safe environment for everyone.