“I feel like going inside to restaurants among the people we know is like sex used to be when I was coming up in school,” says Laura Kumin, a Chevy Chase resident in her 60s. These days, it’s as if sitting down for an indoor meal is a major milestone, but one you keep somewhat private to avoid judgement. “Someone used the phrase, ‘Have you done it?’ Meaning, ‘Have you gone inside a restaurant?’” Kumin says. “I’ve been careful and gone to places like Buck’s Fishing & Camping, which I know are careful.”
Any hesitancy around dining indoors is understandable given the risk of becoming seriously ill after contracting COVID-19 increases with age. But with vaccines and masks in play, older D.C. diners are venturing back out because they miss the social and interactive aspects of dining out. The restaurants they’re visiting aren’t like the ones they frequented before the pandemic. Now they’re encountering QR codes, services charges, and newfangled outdoor seating areas known as streateries.
In 2019, City Paper checked in with older D.C. diners to find out their opinions on the region’s restaurant scene. D.C. restaurants largely cater to millennials for good reason—according to 2019 census date, the median age in D.C. is 34. Now we’re circling back to see how they’re navigating the new normal as restaurants reopen. They mentioned everything from shorter menus to new labor models, and all spoke of the struggles restaurants are experiencing when it comes to staffing and supply chain shortages. Many of their observations are likely shared by people across all age groups.
The black-and-white QR codes affixed to many tables are a divisive topic. Some businesses use them just for pulling up the menu while others rely on them for everything from ordering to settling the bill. “Is that the thing where you have to take your phone and hold it up?” asks Arlene Wagner, a 70-year-old Falls Church resident and co-owner of Bub & Pops. “I really appreciate interacting with a human being and doing these things to me, the QR whatever, is obnoxious and not customer friendly.”
Wagner and her husband refuse to use them and either request a paper menu or head elsewhere with their dining dollars. She says she’s had cataract surgery and “can see pretty well now,” but she grows impatient having to maximize and minimize her screen to read different components of a menu. Her phone, she feels, should remain tucked away during meals. “We spend enough time on the computer and electronics,” she says.
QR codes don’t always mesh with the notion of hospitality because, by design, they create distance between patrons and staff. “Some places you feel like you use a code and [there’s] no interaction with the staff and then you’re presented with a 20 percent tip,” says Howard Gantman, a 70-year-old Capitol Hill resident. “I wanted to get to know somebody here. Going out is having that interactive experience.”
Brookland resident Frank Rettig, on the other hand, calls QR codes “a wonderful direction” because they “put the menu in everyone’s hands.” Sometimes restaurants only supply tables with one drink menu to pass around in a hurry before a server approaches to take orders. “It keeps everything sanitary and for the most part, people who dine out carry smartphones,” the 59-year-old says. “I can’t see any way it’s not a good experience because you’re in control.”
Lori Gardner, a Silver Spring resident in her 60s who founded the blog Been There, Eaten That, also likes QR codes because they make splitting meals with friends less awkward. What if she had two drinks and a pal only had one? Some places that use QR codes, like The Roost, allow each diner to start their own tab. “As long as someone is coming to the table to check on us,” she says. “I don’t want no service, but I think it’s a good thing for restaurants that are understaffed because it allows them to have a little more flexibility.”
Other diners tolerate them, like 82-year-old Donna Macgowens who frequents Brookland’s Finest. The Brookland resident calls herself “pretty tech savvy” but admits QR codes threw her off. “Fortunately my daughter was with me when I first encountered them so she walked me through it,” Macgowens says. “That was quite different but not insurmountable. I like a mix of the old and the new. It keeps me on my toes. If they stick around, we’ll all adapt to it.”
Streateries are a pandemic invention that seem likely to last. They enable restaurants to increase their outdoor seating capacities. Some older diners are only willing to dine outdoors in D.C. because virus transmission is less likely outside. Unsurprisingly, some support permanent streateries or “little shacks in the streets” as Rettig calls them. He says they give the District “a taste of Parisian life.”
“One of the unfortunate truths of America is they crank up the temperature in the winter until it’s sweltering hot or they freeze you to death in a restaurant, neither of which is good for your health and restricts what you can wear,” Rettig says. One of the reasons he likes dining out is to access the fashion sense of other diners.
“People learn by eating in the streateries to bundle up or bring an umbrella,” Rettig continues. “You will survive and you’ll have a good time. Why do I say this? I’m a Burner. I’ve been going to Burning Man for 12 years. I understand and know what the harsh elements are.” So what, he says, if it’s a little cold or windy.
Ian Todd, a 64-year-old Dupont Circle resident, also supports streateries. He calls them the one good thing about the past year. “I hope the city continues to allow them for these entrepreneurs and restaurants,” he says. “It’s a wonderful experience and some of them are done really well.” He recently strolled through Georgetown’s main drag with his dog. “It’s great to see patios instead of parked cars.”
Those diners who venture indoors hope that restaurants maintain a little more distance between tables even though the city relaxed the six-feet-apart regulation in May. Some have. “Thank god they kept enough space between tables,” says a Bethesda resident in his 60s who asked not to be named. “I don’t like people being on top of me when I’m eating or having conversations.”
He understands the economics of restaurants. More tables equals more dollars. He proposes a trade off of sorts, saying he’d happily agree to a time limit on a reservation to ensure a restaurant can turn tables faster so long as they keep tables spaced further apart. “I would be willing to be a little more rushed if there’s lower noise.”
Scoring a table can feel like a feat of strength these days, partially because restaurants don’t have enough staff to utilize all of their tables. “Some of the more popular restaurants feel tougher to get a reservation than it used to,” Gantman says. “There have been so many more people who haven’t dined out for a year and a half.”
Some older diners say they prefer calling restaurants to make reservations instead of using platforms like RESY or OpenTable. The trouble is some restaurants like Maydan and Queen’s English don’t have phone numbers patrons can call. “We do not have a telephone, if you need to reach us during service please send us an email or a message via our Instagram page and we’ll try our best to respond ASAP,” reads the Queen’s English menu.
Kumin talks about a recent mix up. She was supposed to meet friends at Makan but confused the Malaysian restaurant with Maydan. “We were at Maydan, which was locked up tight and there was no phone,” she says. “We were knocking on the door.” While she was finally able to get a hold of her friend and head to the correct destination, she was surprised not to see a number listed on Maydan’s website.
Some patrons may want to call restaurants in advance of a meal for other reasons, like to inquire about their safety protocols. Kumin weighs more than food and drink when deciding where to eat. She wants restaurants to publicize whether they require their staff to get vaccinated. (The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says employers can mandate vaccinations, so long as they provide exceptions to people with disabilities or religious beliefs.)
“That’s really important in these times when we’re trying to figure out the variant,” Kumin says. “I will reward restaurants that take a stand for vaccination and for public safety.” She imagines a line or two on an eatery’s website that reads “Staff are required to be vaccinated to work here.”
Kumin is concerned with the wellbeing of servers. “I cannot imagine what it’s like,” she says. “It’s very risky to be inside for eight hours or more, even wearing a mask. Those of us who are dining are not wearing masks while we’re eating. I look at these servers—no matter what their age—and I’m concerned for them.”
A number of local restaurants distanced themselves from tipping when they relaunched, either by increasing prices to cover labor costs or by introducing a service charge. Because a service charge is mandatory, the money is considered part of sales. That leaves owners in charge of disbursing the funds however they see fit. Diners have to trust that owners are acting in good faith, but service charges reduce the chances of staff being stiffed.
Wagner saw a service charge on her check recently. “I get it,” she says. “It’s what restaurants need to do to survive and some people are incredibly cheap. They read in the newspaper how hard this industry has been hit and they have the nerve to not leave anything even if it has nothing to do with the level of service they feel they got or didn’t get.”
Tipping is so ingrained in American culture that it could take some time for older diners to get used to new systems. Gantman just enjoyed a meal at The Duck & The Peach. The Eastern Market newcomer adds a 22 percent “living wage charge” to checks and prominently explains why on its website.
“I support their idea of the 22 percent charge, but we had some wonderful waitstaff,” he says. “It felt so funny not to provide a tip on top. We were left with a quandary. Do we want to provide a tip? We ended up adding one, but when you add that it becomes an expensive meal so we would probably go there less often in the future. … It’s a dilemma as more restaurants experiment with that.”
Gantman shares an anecdote that he feels speaks to generational differences in the dining room. He has a 19-year-old daughter. They were eating together when a restaurant served him a salad sans dressing. “We talked to the waiter, who was terrific,” he says. “They brought the salad back and it was much nicer.”
His daughter wouldn’t have spoken up. “She said, ‘‘That’s the difference, we don’t send things back. We’ve had to deal with so much we kind of accept things easier. Your generation sends things back. You expect it to be right.”
“If something obviously seems to be wrong, rather than souring the evening or meal so that you don’t go back to that restaurant, sometimes saying something ends up much nicer and you’ll say, ‘I’ll be back tomorrow,’” Gantman says, defending his perspective. Talking to his daughter got him thinking. “Young people have been going through school closures, colleges that are virtual, and climate change. They have a different attitude.”