Japan’s Izu Shabonten Zoo in Shizuoka reopened two weeks ago and strategically placed stuffed capybara toys on chairs to keep diners apart.
Photo by @chacha0rca on Twitter
New design trend: Eating out with capybaras, pandas & pods
CRAZY QUILT - Tanya Lara (The Philippine Star) - May 30, 2020 - 12:00am

An alternative restaurant scene is emerging around the world. Lockdowns have begun to ease this month and some cities are allowing restaurants to serve dine-in customers while others are still for takeout and delivery only.

Restaurants are some of the hardest-hit businesses by COVID-19. Restaurant associations around the US, for example, are predicting that 30 percent will shutter permanently after the lockdown orders are lifted. Restaurants are also one of the biggest employers of contractual workers, whose take-home pay depends on people coming in and leaving tips. As diners are still unsure about the safety of dining out, restaurants have come up with clever ways to allay fears by enforcing social distancing to prevent virus spread.

They are either redesigning their spaces to reduce seating capacity or simply occupying seats with inanimate objects such as stuffed toys, cardboard cutouts and mannequins.

The restaurant Maison Saigon in Bangkok put panda stuffed toys to occupy chairs after the owner saw that the space “felt empty” with just one chair to a table.  In Sydney’s Five O’Clock Dining, cardboard cutouts occupy chairs, much like how South Korea resumed its baseball games in empty stadiums last April with cutouts of fans on the bleachers.

At the Inn at Little Washington in Virginia, you’ll have mannequins dressed in 1940s attire as tablemates when it reopens. They might look a little creepy after two or three Negronis, but you know they won’t pass you COVID-19 (or the salt shaker either).

Japan’s Izu Shabonten Zoo in Shizuoka reopened two weeks ago and strategically placed stuffed capybara toys on chairs. To be honest, I find real capybaras scary (they remind me of rats) but the plush toys are the cutest things to sit beside!

Pods for individual diners or groups are also in. Amsterdam’s Mediamatic Eten restaurant takes this concept a step further by building mini greenhouses in its outdoor space by the water.

What about Manila? We asked designer Ivy Almario, co-owner of Relish and Romulo restaurants; and restaurateur Elbert Cuenca, owner of Elbert’s Steak Room, Elbert’s Diner, Elbert’s Pizzeria, Elbert’s Upstairs Bar and Metronome: How will post-lockdown restaurants look like and how will they cope with social distancing between customers and staff?

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Ivy Almario, designer and restaurateur, Relish Luxe Cafe and Romulo Cafe

Designer Ivy Almario and restaurateur Elbert Cuenca find ways to implement physical distancing in their restaurants; around the world restos are using stuffed toys and mannequins.

Sketching is my thing. I love drawing plus designing. So my two loves should easily have allowed me to share pegs of restaurant design post-COVID-19 . However, my mind is still in shock — that a thriving industry in March is dead in the water 60 days later.

A reduced seating sketch for when it opens.

Personally, in the restaurants we own and operate, what would I change? After numerous conversations and mental doodling, the most sensible piece of advice I’ve heard is imposing social distancing by making every other table redundant. Not by removing them for where would we store them? But with a sign that says, “For your safety, we are not seating guests at this table.” As it is, restaurants are already beleaguered by the monetary challenge of keeping afloat, adding unnecessary expenses, which may not increase foot traffic, will not help.

The new Romulo Cafe at One Bonifacio High Street’s opening in March was postponed. Above and left are the actual interiors.

There is also a trend to use acrylic shields. These will work, as long as they are above a person’s head, when seated. But how attractive will dining be if you cannot be in groups? How attractive is it for restaurants to continue operating, if social distancing rules say they can only have 30 percent of their former capacity? Can we survive in the interim on takeouts, when private kitchens are competing in the takeout market, sans overhead?

At the Inn at Little Washington in Virginia, you’ll have mannequins dressed in 1940s attire as tablemates.
Photo by Associated Press

A Chinese proverb says, “May you live in interesting times.” Count me in! Reinvent, we must, but some of us have to get over the shock first.

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Romulo Café offers delivery or takeout. Call 84786406, 8691906 from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday to Sunday only. Pickup address is 148 Jupiter St., Bel-Air Village, Makati. For Relish Luxe Café branches, call 8693-2880, 86359583,? 0916-210 2969.

Elbert Cuenca, restaurateur, Elbert’s Steak Room, Elbert’s Diner, Elbert’s Pizzeria, Elbert’s Upstairs Bar and Metronome.

Personally, I do not see restaurant design drastically changing in a post-pandemic world. I remain confident and hopeful that the old normal will return. Ultimately, the practice of eating in a restaurant is a social activity, even for solo diners.

Hygiene practices are part and parcel of responsible restaurant operations, but that mostly happens outside of the customer’s sight. Diners usually just trust that we are safe. With COVID19, guests will now be seeking visual cues to convince them that the establishment is indeed safe for them, whether dining in or taking out.

For dine-in, the choices of materials will be crucial, like having tiled floors, non-porous chairs and copper table surfaces. Based on all that I have learned and observed these past two months, if I were to come up with new dining concepts, it would be resurrecting old ideas and concepts that are applicable today.

• The automat. There is no better time to bring back the 1940s concept that was way ahead of its time. Imagine a wall of small glass cabinets that look like stacked microwave ovens. They’re actually food warmers, or chillers in the case of salads and beverages. Customers walk in to the automat, visually shop for their dishes, and then scan the QR code of the cabinet with the item of their choice. Contactless, cashless, and self-service.

Private dining with open pods and the automat of the 1940s.

• Small private rooms. In 1995, I was involved with a high-end Japanese restaurant in Makati that featured a number of private dining rooms, each one designed to accommodate a group of four or six persons only. A restaurant of small private rooms may feel like a spa, but the point will be more for safety rather than privacy.

• Open-air dining. Many people fear that virus droplets can be spread by air-conditioning systems, so a return to al-fresco dining may just be more reassuring to them. I would set up semi-formal dining spaces in helipads of tall buildings and in accessible rustic locations with sprawling gardens.

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For delivery and takeout, call Elbert’s Pizzeria at 0917-677 8325;  Elbert’s Diner, 0917-517 2480; Lazy Oeuf by Metronome, 0917- 147 3776.

Visit the author’s travel blog at www.findingmyway.net. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @iamtanyalara.

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