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We went out to dinner and here's what we discovered

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With outdoor dining open in Connecticut and Rhode Island, although with restrictions on capacity and social distancing, diners are left wondering: Is it safe?

A recent poll by The Day showed nearly 4 people out of every 10 are taking a wait-and-see attitude because of the dangers posed by COVID-19. So we dispatched six journalists to restaurants from Westerly to Old Lyme to check out the scene for you. The restaurants were unaware we were with The Day. Here's our report:

Malted Barley in Westerly, Thursday, May 21

When I answered my own call for volunteers to go to some of the now-allowed outside dining options, I set out to find a cohort. My wife, Betty, immediately said no. She wasn't ready to sit within 6 feet of strangers or be served by one. Our son, Colby, who also has been cautious through this pandemic, had a different response. Free meal and great beer selection? He was in.

It turned out to be an enjoyable evening with, unsurprisingly, some glitches.

When I made reservations on themaltedbarleyri.net, the restaurant asked that we place our order in advance, so I did so in the form. When we arrived they instructed us to wash our hands with Tito's hand sanitizer. For a place that takes not only its beer selection but its cocktail and wine offerings seriously, it was a nice touch to offer a hand sanitizer from a vodka maker. The outside dining area at Malted Barley is in the back, down a set of stairs, on the Pawcatuck River. We had an early reservation, 4:30, and picked a table with a clear view of the river. With no one else there, we took off our masks.

First glitch: The staff had lost the food order I had made online. No big deal. We reordered. Second glitch: They weren't providing menus, so we were urged to go online to see the beer list. Our waiter was extremely helpful and willing to read the list from his tablet, but going forward the restaurant should provide disposable menus.

The deck had four tables, nicely spaced apart and cleaned often by our masked waiter. As you exited, there were three more tables that each sat the maximum party of five. From one-way traffic to accepting only non-cash payment, the restaurant was clearly making a serious effort to operate under the new rules and make customers comfortable.

We started with an asiago pretzel with beer cheese and our pretzel sandwiches were meatball and cannellini. All excellent.

It was a lovely spring night, and the river view made it all the more comfortable. By the time we left, two other parties had arrived — they, too, quickly dispatched the masks — but it seemed many people weren't ready yet to get out to dinner.

— Tim Cotter

Zack's Bar & Grille in Stonington, Thursday, May 21

Pre-pandemic, we used to dine out one or two evenings most weekends, so last week, when Connecticut eateries got the go-ahead to reopen for outdoor dining, we were cautious but, to be honest, a little giddy, too. After a 10-week regime of dine-at-home-only, we would be going out to dinner again.

Our choice was Zack's Bar & Grille, prompted in part by its extensive social media campaign in advance of reopening, which provided all the information we needed to safely venture out to a restaurant again. Reservations were required, and on my first call, owner Lynn Tsagarakis answered and confirmed our table for Thursday, May 21. Opening night, May 20, she said, was already booked full.

In eblasts and on its Facebook page, Zack's let diners know its hours and days, menu and the new rules. And it cautioned to bring jackets, fleece blankets and extra socks to ward off chilly harbor breezes.

We were greeted by a masked hostess when we arrived, and after we gave our name, asked to visit the sanitation table to freshen our hands. Then, clad with our own masks, we were led to our table, which was safely distanced more than 6 feet away from other diners.

With the new outdoor-dining-only rules, Zack's has had to halve its inside capacity of 64, including its bar, to 32. It borrowed tables from restaurateur friend Jon Kodama, who also has had to halve his outdoor seating at Breakwater, his borough restaurant operated by his daughter, Mari Kodama. Friends help each other out, Lynn Tsagarakis told us.

Our veteran waitress, wearing gloves and a mask, couldn't have been more cordial, and she answered all of our questions about the food and the new rules. Our paper menus would be discarded after one-time use, and our single-serve salt and pepper packets would be tossed if not used. We ordered our wine, removed our masks and perused the menu. We were back at Zack's!

The restaurant is offering its full menu, and we sampled one of our favorites, the sautéed calamari, as well as a chicken cordon bleu special and a New York sirloin. The food was good, but this visit was really about our comfort level. Did we feel safe dining out again? We did.

As the sun dipped down, a masked Tom Tsagarakis, co-owner, moved a small propane-fired heater closer to our table and agreed it was all kind of bizarre, this new normal. But he was thrilled, he said, to be open again. The waitstaff had to maneuver serving trays and beverages up and down two levels of stairs and over the cobbled side-yard, where our table was set, but they seemed to do it effortlessly. Other diners on their way in and out kept their distance as they passed, and when friends arrived for their own reservation, it struck me, there would be none of the usual handshakes and hugs. Instead, we called our hellos from about 8 feet away.

It turned out we didn't need those blankets, or the extra jackets, but we did find comfort in the food and the precautions that Tom and Lynn Tsagarakis took to help ensure our safety. They certainly seemed to have things under control and it helped to hear from the owners that they had studied the state, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and restaurant association regulations and guidelines and did everything they were asked to and more.

— Ann Baldelli

On The Waterfront in New London, Friday, May 22

I made an 8 p.m. reservation for myself and co-worker Taylor Hartz, thinking there would be fewer people there at that time. I should've known with a spot as popular as On The Waterfront that it wouldn't make a difference on the Friday night of Memorial Day Weekend, especially with the beautiful weather.

When I called to make the reservation, I asked if there were any specific instructions for our arrival. I was told to check in at the host stand just outside the entrance to the restaurant, to wear a mask until we were seated at a table, and that we had to order food, not just drinks — no complaints there!

The host, who was wearing a mask and plastic gloves, checked us in on an iPad and promptly brought us to our table — a four-top.

Eight tables were spaced out along the patio, which stretches along the side of the restaurant, and about 20 people were seated there, including us, eating dinner.

We overheard the woman at the table next to us suggest to her male dining mate (presumably her husband but we don't like to assume, since we're journalists), that they make a standing reservation for every Friday at 7.

Each table had a space heater above it, and a plastic partition lined the patio. A hand sanitizer station was set up in the middle of the patio just before an entrance to the inside of the restaurant, where signs directed patrons to the bathroom.

The waitstaff all wore masks and gloves, and we were given paper menus to order from. Our silverware came wrapped in cloth napkins, and our table was draped with a cloth tablecloth, which staff removed after each party left.

We ordered the cod Mediterranean, which was served in a light tomato sauce over spinach with a side of mashed potatoes, and the zuppa di pesce fra diavolo, shrimp, scallops, calamari, mussels with linguine. We opted for the garlic white wine sauce.

While we kept our masks on for most of the dinner, most of the other patrons did not, but people did wear them when arriving and leaving.

Asked how everything was going a few days after reopening to the public, our waitress said it was an added task to change her gloves every time she switched tables or cashed someone out, and that her mask restricted her breathing a bit. But she said seeing customers on the patio again enjoying themselves made the situation "almost feel normal."

— Julia Bergman

Flanders Fish Market in East Lyme, Friday, May 22

A number of restaurants are adding outdoor dining back to their offerings but are doing it with more of a takeout approach. Such is the case at Flanders Fish Market.

Here's how it worked when a friend and I arrived without reservations — the venue is first-come, first-served — at 5:30 p.m. We were greeted outside the front door by masked and gloved Flanders Fish Market workers. They explained the process to us: We would go into the building, order our food, pay and choose our seats outside. A worker then would bring us our food as takeout.

The number of customers let into the building at the same time was capped at five, so I waited briefly before being allowed in to place our order.

We wandered onto the restaurant's expansive deck, where there were fewer tables than usual and they were much farther apart — social distancing the motivating factor, of course. From the mix of picnic tables and high tops, we settled into a high-top table next to the building. There are also picnic tables placed in the shade under the trees that line the chain-link fence between the fish market and the East Lyme High School parking lot next door.

More than half the tables on the deck were occupied when we arrived, and the mood was mellow. Everyone was obeying the rules of social distancing and wearing masks while not eating.

An employee brought us our order in about the same amount of time that would have been expected in pre-pandemic days — not long at all. Our dishes were tucked inside takeout containers, and they, along with utensils, napkins and ketchup packages, were piled carefully into a big, brown paper bag. Our water was delivered in covered takeout cups.

And the food? Delicious. I discovered the pleasures of the Flanders Fish Market seafood sliders, which include a lobster slider and a tuna slider. I ordered the salmon burger, a mix of salmon, scallion, red onion and cabbage with lemon aioli on a grilled roll, and was one happy diner. My friend ordered the fish tacos and was quite pleased with her selection, as well.

What you won't get is traditional wait service. If we had decided later on that, say, we wanted dessert, it would have been up to us to go inside to order it, with the employees then bringing it out as they did with the main dishes. But that's not exactly a hardship, and I didn't miss it.

During the time we were there, I also noticed a constant stream of customers doing traditional takeout.

By the time we left at 6:30, the tables were a little more full, but there was still room available. And, despite the weirdness of these times, I couldn't help thinking: Dining on the Flanders Fish Market deck is still a thoroughly enjoyable summer ritual.

— Kristina Dorsey 

Kokomo's Restaurant & Beach Bar in Old Lyme, Sunday, May 24

Sitting under the retractable canopy at Kokomo's, it almost felt like a typical summer Sunday afternoon.

Mother Nature had flipped the switch from the cool and rainy weather of the previous day to the magical light of Old Lyme, gifting us with the bright, azure skies and sea that transfixed the Impressionist artists of the past and draws throngs of beachgoers to this day. The imported palm trees, trucked in for the short season, fluttered only slightly in the gentle breeze. The white lounge chairs on the clean sand of Kokomo's fenced-in beach beckoned.

An attentive server in a tropical shirt brought our drinks and fried calamari appetizer and, as we dug in, we were inclined to think nobody had it better at that moment. Our server wore a matching mask and was gloved, reminding this local couple we were taking a risk by going to one of our favorite destinations to dine outside during the global pandemic.

Arriving before noon, we snagged one of the last spots available in the town parking lot and paid $7 for two hours. We walked to the end of Hartford Avenue, where a large digital sign read, "Welcome to Sound View Beach," and an abundance of police vehicles reminded us that the season has officially started.

After having our Saturday reservation rained out, we made another for Sunday using the Open Table application. We entered Kokomo's outdoor patio without having to go inside the restaurant and counted 11 tables, spaced 7 or 8 feet apart. Big bottles of hand sanitizer spray were placed at the side entrance and the beachfront exit. The bar was closed as per Gov. Ned Lamont's executive order.

We overcame a few challenges during the meal, deciding to tuck our cloth masks in our pockets while we ate. One of us (ahem, it was me) resisted an almost overwhelming urge to scratch her nose and went outside to clear her throat when her $12 margarita went down the wrong pipe.

We followed the server's instruction to touchlessly view the menu on our phone and ordered the calamari ($15), mussels fra diavolo ($13), fish and chips ($20) and a Cobb salad ($16). We paid with a credit card on a portable reader, making sure to leave a generous tip for the server, who said she was happy to be working again.

Leaving by the beachfront exit, we strolled along the high-tide mark along the tiny public beach, where occupants had been counted to ensure social distancing, and past the Miami Beach fence that still stands despite a judge's ruling that it must come down.

Dining at Sound View is always a treat, even in the time of COVID-19.

— Karen Florin

Thames Landing Oyster House in New  London, Tuesday, May 26

On Saturday, I planned to dine at Dev’s Bistro on State Street, where reservations were being taken for two-hour windows, but the rain caused the restaurant to close for the evening, despite the skies clearing around dinner time. Although I had made my reservation days in advance, I wasn’t contacted by anyone at the restaurant to be alerted to the closure. It was, however, easy to reach the restaurant by phone once it opened that evening, and I was informed it was instead offering a meal for pickup.

I opted instead to wait for a sunny day to dine outside. At Thames Landing Oyster Bar, I felt as safe as I would ordering takeout. Besides sitting at one of its tables, not much was different. My meal, a mango salad piled high with hot, butter-soaked lobster meat, and shrimp scampi in angel hair pasta, was served covered in to-go containers with a package of disposable silverware. 

My drink, a glass of sangria normally served in a more aesthetically pleasing wine glass, came in a plastic Bud Light cup; my water was served in a disposable foam coffee cup; and my meal came out in black circular plastic containers with clear lids, the sides in a foam box. At first it was off-putting; I wondered if my drink was the right order due to its appearance and wondered if I was meant to take my food to go. But after remembering why the precautions were in place, I settled in to enjoy my meal as I watched the ferries pass by on the Sound. 

Eating out of the plastic containers, I felt that I was touching the same surfaces I would have touched if I had ordered takeout, making the meal seem like less of a risk and more like something I’ve been doing throughout the pandemic. 

Outside, a section of the sidewalk on State Street had been partitioned off, making room for two small tables with two bright teal chairs at each, allowing for two parties and a total of four people to dine outside. One couple dined across from me, more than 6 feet away.

I kept my mask on between courses and my server was friendly, checking in regularly to ask about the food — delicious and perfectly prepared — and always wearing a mask and staying a few feet from the table while talking to me. 

When the other couple dining on the sidewalk left, the server and another staff member cleared the table quickly and carefully wiped down the tabletop. There were no other guests waiting to be seated, but a few wandered in and out to pick up takeout orders, including to-go cocktails.

— Taylor Hartz

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