How eating at restaurants might look different after coronavirus (COVID-19) shutdown ends

2 restaurant owners offer glimpse of what changes they’re putting into place

BIRMINGHAM, Mich. – We might not know exactly what it will look like, but we do know going out to eat at restaurants will be different when the coronavirus (COVID-19) shutdown ends.

"It’s been horrible, said Nino Cutraro, of Bella Piatti in Birmingham.

That pretty much sums up the COVID-19 pandemic for the restaurant business. Restaurants are trying to rely on carryout, but there are none of the buzzy communal gatherings that make dining out such a big part of American life.

“People feel more comfortable, but also, people want to be next to each other because you come to a restaurant not just for the food -- you come for the experience,” Cutraro said. "You come to socialize.

Bella Piatta is trying out a kind of partitioning between the tables. The restaurant is owned by Cutraro and his wife, Liz. It thrives on its small space and coziness, but how do you keep that atmosphere while convincing diners they’re safe? How about plexiglass?

“We separate it without feeling intrusive, so you feel like (it’s how) it used to be,” Cutraro said.

Mary Liz Curtin, the owner of Three Cats restaurant in Clawson, is grappling with a similar issue.

“We used to have a restaurant full of people having cocktails, talking to each other, talking to strangers, breathing on each other, kissing and touching,” Curtin said. “Oh my God, it was just horrible, so we fixed that.”

Curtin said she’s working on rearranging the dining room and rethinking table settings. You probably won’t see a plate or silverware pre-set when you walk in.

She said it’s difficult to extend restaurant hospitality from behind a mask.

“One of the tests we’re going to have is: How do you smile with your eyes?” Curtin said. “How do you make sure people know you’re smiling when you’re bringing them the check? It’s going to be a trick.”

Both Bella Piatti and Three Cats are currently offering carryout. The owners said the trick is figuring out these issues when customers can once again eat inside the restaurants.

“Much more comfortable to be in this kind of setting, when we completely reopen -- even if we are six feet apart,” Cutraro said.

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