Entering a restaurant right now is almost akin to stepping into another world.
Whereas outside, face masks are a staple and being close to people is enough to elicit a shudder, inside seems like a step back in time.
Groups chatter unmasked and food is served as it was before the pandemic hit. But, if you look closer, there are small changes to the dining-out experience.
That's the same for any restaurant, casual or fine-dining. But it is, arguably, those in the latter sphere that have had rethink their approach most radically. After all, it was an industry built on the in-house event, in which the silver service and ambience were all part of the experience, and the notion of delivery was rarely taken into consideration.
So, has a special meal out changed for ever?
'People come to our restaurants to escape'
On Saturday afternoon, high-end Greek restaurant Gaia, a pre-Covid-19 DIFC favourite, was relatively buzzing. We'd gone in search of a venue to break our three-month restaurant drought, and were surprised to be surrounded by more than half a dozen tables filled with families at 3pm on a weekend, though our waiter lamented the decline in business. Loyal customers had been quick to come back, she said, but they were still only serving about half as many patrons a day.
Masks can be discarded while eating in an indoor setting, according to Dubai government regulations, which aids in the feeling the pandemic is merely a distant dream – if you can ignore the fact your server is still wearing one.
Whereas restaurants had to use disposable utensils and plates when restrictions were first eased in Dubai, silver cutlery and porcelain have now returned, which is the case at Gaia. Big menus are still served, though they are frequently cleaned and sanitised, we were told. Tables have been spaced out but otherwise, nothing major seems to have changed. And no, prices haven't come down.
"People come to our restaurants to enjoy themselves, to indulge in an abundance of flavours and energy, to forget about the outside world," Gaia co-founder and chef Izu Ani says.
"We’ve noticed when guests arrive and are taken to their table, they rip off their masks and continue as they normally would, like nothing has happened."
For this reason, the team have tried to make subtle changes to not take away from the experience, but still comply with regulations.
Guests can only sit at alternate tables, but none have been taken away so "guests aren’t put off or influenced by any visual representations of the pandemic", Ani says, as they are trying to provide an "escape" from reality.
Dubai's rulers have been spotted at Gaia in recent days
As such, patrons have begun returning – including several high-profile guests. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, and his son, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai, have both been spotted there on separate occasions in the past week.
"We have had so much support from the UAE royal family and our community and it just shows that people want life to return to normal as soon as possible. It’s been gradual, as people have had to readjust to going out again and social distancing means that we can’t fill all of our tables at the moment, but we are at capacity throughout the weekends and have really improved during the week," Ani says.
"I think people want to enjoy the art of premium restaurants, to feel cared for, welcomed and reassured by the attention to detail we pay, which differs from a casual restaurant."
Brian Voelzing, Lincoln Hospitality Group executive chef, who oversees La Serre Bistro and Boulangerie, The Loft at Dubai Opera, Distillery Gastropub and Taikun, says the only changes made to the dining experience are for safety reasons.
In all their restaurants, tables have been spaced out, there is a limited seating capacity, the bar is closed to standing room, and temperature checks and hand sanitisers are stationed at the entrance.
Cleanliness has also come to the fore, Voelzing says, with additional cleaning staff being employed for daily and overnight cleaning. Staff must wear gloves and masks which are changed after serving every table and the cooking team wear full visors. Menus can be accessed through a QR code on each table.
Pandemic has driven innovation for some
From an operational standpoint, Evgeny Kuzin, chairman and co-founder of Bulldozer Group, which operates some of Dubai's most renowned restaurant names – Gaia, Scalini, Shanghai Me and Cipriani – says the pandemic has had "significant impacts" on the business, and will result in lasting changes for months to come.
However, it has also made them revolutionise their offerings, which could result in permanent gourmet food delivery services in future operations. Kuzin says the group is now working on "the technology and logistics for a service that delivers high-quality cuisine".
However, heading out for a nice meal is an experience that will outlast the pandemic, he says.
"I see that people have missed having lunch or dinner at a premium restaurant, from getting dressed up to meeting friends and family and sharing a meal together," he says.
"I believe that people will return to normal as soon as possible and that restaurants will be as busy as they were before. We have already seen such a promising start."
While recovery comes first, Kuzin will continue international and regional expansion plans as soon as possible.
'Once the people stopped coming our revenue completely dried up'
In contrast, however, some independent restaurants say they are still struggling for support. Indian-fusion stalwart Mint Leaf of London issued a statement on social media in late May acknowledging a "stressful" few months, confirming it had been forced to cut staff wages but had also managed to retain its entire 40-member workforce and provide flights to employees who wanted to return home.
The family-owned business said they had "struggled financially and personally", before urging Dubai residents to fill its tables once more.
Executive chef Pradeep Khullar says the restaurant is now bringing in about a quarter of the revenue it did before the pandemic hit. He admits being unprepared for a delivery-only model may have been the hardest obstacle to overcome.
"It has always been about an experience and our model of tasting menus and drink-paired menus was never delivery driven. Therefore, once people stopped coming through the door, our revenue completely dried up."
Despite a brief closure, the restaurant has been open again since Eid. Khullar says its loyal patrons had been their biggest supporters, via in-house dining and delivery, and "the needle is slowly but surely moving upwards".
However, recently the team has had to make further cost-saving decisions – "blanket reductions and voluntary contributions by the staff", Khullar says – but still have not made any redundancies. Some of the business's staff had been with them since they opened five years ago.
"This definitely was a tougher call to make financially as we wanted to look out for the Mint Leaf family, despite no revenue," Khullar says.
They're now pushing promotions such as business lunches and ladies' nights, sans bar due to recent regulatory changes, and focusing on a delivery menu to stay afloat.
But Khullar wants to assure the public that a trip to his restaurant is a safe experience.
There are temperature checks on arrival and masks and gloves are used by staff, as per government regulations. Mint Leaf have gone further in other ways, offering customers the choice of disposable cutlery instead of silver, for example. Menus are given out while a contactless option is being worked on, but these are sanitised after every use. The sizeable dining area means social distancing has been easy to implement.
"The driving factor to making the changes was to ensure that these are not intrusive and not take away from the core Mint Leaf fine-dining experience," Khullar says. "We want patrons to have the choice of going ahead with an experience that they feel is best suited to them and are comfortable with."