Ed. note: Some California counties, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Contra Costa, and Alameda, now require proof of vaccination for indoor dining. Before traveling, familiarize yourself with local guidelines and regulations for all of the destinations you plan to visit.
After months of limiting their operations to delivery, takeout, and outdoor seating, it's been dining-as-usual for a while now at California restaurants. But even though diners are breaking bread and rejoicing with friends at their favorite local bistros, restaurant owners and employees are still digging out from pandemic-related challenges, especially the current labor shortage.
"Even with the easing of some restrictions, the restaurant industry is struggling," says Sharokina Shams, vice president of public affairs at the California Restaurant Association. "One of the biggest challenges is getting fully staffed. [During the pandemic], many employees left the restaurant business altogether. Some employees were laid off more than once, and of course they got tired of it. Some of them went on to look for more stable employment."
A lot of restaurants are also still facing huge financial losses incurred during the pandemic, says Laurie Thomas, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, a nonprofit trade association for San Francisco Bay Area restaurants.
"The recovery is a gradual process, not an overnight process. We can't just assume that it's going to go from zero to 100. Restaurants are still playing catch-up."
Shams notes that California restaurants "would greatly appreciate a little kindness and patience in the coming months. People expect us to say, 'Yay, we're fully reopen,' but we're celebrating with a grain of salt. It's been really difficult for many of our members to hang in there."
Restaurant owners are doing everything they can to welcome customers back, but for the next few months, diners should manage their expectations.
"You might find that it takes a little bit longer for your meal to come to the table” Shams says. “You might find that it's a little bit harder to get a table at the best restaurants in your town or the community you're visiting. You may need to make reservations much farther in advance. It's going to take a little bit of working out the kinks and walking before we can run."
One big silver lining for diners and restaurants has been the renewed enthusiasm for al fresco dining. Across the state, cities have created new outdoor dining spaces such as Santa Barbara's eight-block State Street Promenade and Sacramento's Farm-to-Fork Al Fresco program.
In San Francisco, the pandemic-inspired Shared Spaces program allows restaurants to set up tables and chairs in parking spaces and open lots, creating "parklets" for outdoor dining. Currently the Shared Spaces program is in place until December, but the restaurant industry is pushing to make it permanent.
"The parklets make people feel like they're in Europe, dining outside," Thomas says. "They create a vibrancy in the city. Customers love them, and they activate and enliven the neighborhoods."
You can help California restaurants recover from the pandemic, and ensure a great dining experience, by following these tips:
Reserve a table: It might seem like a no-brainer but booking in advance makes it easier for restaurants to plan for how many diners they'll be serving each day, and how many staff members need to be on duty.
Decide on seating before you arrive: Perhaps you don't yet feel comfortable sitting inside a restaurant, or you don't want to sit at a communal table, or you think it might be too chilly to eat outside. Let the restaurant know your seating preference before you arrive—and make sure everyone in your party is in agreement. If you're reserving a table online and the system doesn't let you specify your seating, call the restaurant and tell them your preference.
Don't be a no-show: Restaurants don't mind cancellations, but they detest no-shows. If you reserve a table and your plans change, go online and cancel your spot, or phone the restaurant so they can fill your table with walk-in customers. If you forget to cancel and don't show, they'll keep holding your table, which costs them money.
Tip generously: Don't forget that the people who are serving you lunch may have been out of work for all or most of 15 months. Tips are always critical for restaurant workers, but now they mean even more.