Earlier this fall I set foot inside a restaurant for the first time in six months. And I don’t mean to pick up a carryout order. It was to experience a meal in the dining room, my courses brought by welcoming, conscientious servers, while I enjoyed conversation across the table with a good friend.
Despite a bit of apprehension (because I hadn’t eaten inside a restaurant since March), I also felt excited to be back in the environment that I’ve covered for so long.
Restaurants are in the fight of their lives. Recognizing that the effects of the virus will be with us indefinitely, many are making serious changes. When Bartolotta Restaurants reopened its first property, Ristorante Bartolotta dal 1993, in the summer – followed later by Harbor House, Mr. B’s and Bacchus – it was with an extensive response plan. There are mandatory masks for staff and patrons, temperature checks, tables spaced at least 6 feet apart and separated by partitions, a touchless menu and payments, and many more policies and procedures outlined in a multi-page PDF you can find on the company website.
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Bartolotta also adopted something you will be reading more about – UV-C light technology. Used in the “germicidal” range, it is believed to be 99.9% effective at destroying microorganisms in the air and on hard surfaces, per the response plan.
A few other Milwaukee dining establishments have also put in high-tech, air-purifying UV light systems. In the case of the Third Ward’s DanDan, an iWave system installed in the heating/AC ducts uses carbon fiber brushes that produce an air-cleaning electrical charge. The room’s air is scrubbed every 15 minutes. DanDan’s tables are also distanced and separated by partitions. And earlier this fall, the Kohler restaurant/winery The Blind Horse installed an even more rigorous light technology (utilizing, for those in the know, UVC, UVA and Far-UVC 222 light) to rid the air of viruses and pathogens. The Blind Horse claims it’s the first restaurant to use it in the country.
At Ristorante, where I’m seated at a two-top contemplating my menu options, I’m not thinking about the air. I’m checking out everyone in my range of sight. When my dining partner and I arrive, we have our temperatures taken before we’re escorted to our appropriately distanced table. I note that while diners are required to wear masks whenever they’re in the common areas (walking to the restroom, for instance) and at the table when a staff member approaches, not every diner is compliant. But the great majority are. Tag team service continues to be the style here, and even though they don’t spend time at the tables making small talk, they are perfectly cordial, attentive and keep the meal on pace so that every table is in and out within 90 minutes, the maximum reservation time.
To make things easier for everyone – the kitchen staff, headed by longtime executive chef Juan Urbieta, and the diners – Ristorante has turned the menu into a “tasting tour” of a certain region in Italy, with four courses of at least four choices per course. Each “tour” is offered for a month on average, with Piedmont running through Dec. 31. Ours was of Sicily ($59 per person) and the food, across the board, was great – from a red imperial shrimp appetizer to a slow-roasted, milk-fed goat entrée. Raising the bar to more unique offerings is one of the ways the restaurant company is working to “earn back” its customers, as Bartolotta owner/co-founder Paul Bartolotta said earlier this year.
The prix-fixe format meant very little time mulling over the menu and more time relaxing into the atmosphere, which with the new, clear partitions, feels a bit sterile. The number of seats was reduced from 50 to 22, making the room more airy than cozy. But despite that, the curtains, flowers on the table, cloth linens and family photos on the walls still managed to convey warmth. And I’ll take a modicum of sterility in the interest of feeling more secure.
The stakes are a lot higher, and Bartolotta is setting the bar in Milwaukee. Dining out is not intimate in the way that it used to be, but restaurants that are making a commitment to safe protocols are still making the experience something to savor, support and enjoy. That’s the best we can ask for in these times.