It's my first time inside a restaurant since the COVID-19 shutdowns in March.
"Wait, can we go inside?" I hesitate, mid sentence, outside the patio door for a moment, before stepping into a quiet, clean space, dotted with forest green signage, and masked employees making the rounds.
We have come inside to say Hello. Earlier this year, my friend and I still worked for this trendy health-minded restaurant. We must have sweat through a thousand colored cotton lady tees with buzzy health terms printed in random fonts. We spent enough time inside these glassy walls to really get to know all the parts. We moved our way up from hosts to servers to one bartender and one bar manager. We ate cold pizza and warm guacamole in an abandoned corner of the bar, where we rested our lower backs and recapped the day's most interesting patrons/staff. We ran each other's food and made each other's drinks and bussed each other's dishes and used each other's POS login numbers for 3 years. We stoked an easy friendship, despite sharing a job that did its best to sap all our energy and time. We are two nice girls who love plants and books and laughing off our work traumas.
I was last here in January, having put in my two weeks after an obnoxiously busy New Year's weekend. I had clocked out of my last shift unceremoniously, but it still felt like the end of an era. So many people and things had become a comforting routine to me: the executive chef's ability to think of cartoon look-a-likes for every employee, the sous chef's unpredictable late night playlists, ritualizing my self-made almond milk latte as the shift began, bantering with the savagely funny and dependable guy holding down pizza or sauté.
Every night was good for at least one laugh, or piece of gluten free pie, or wad of tips that would do so much to support my health and artistry. My tips went to acting classes and upscale rent in North Hollywood. They went to casting websites and tickets to plays. They went to head shots and date nights when Bae was in town--about half the time I was. Restaurant jobs have kept a roof over my head since I first moved out at 18. They are inextricably tied with my dance career. They have afforded me many hastily swapped shifts and late arrivals for auditions and shows. They have let me leave and come back on easy terms. They have kept me grounded around all types of people: established suits, students, young professionals, families celebrating things, whispering tourists, local hippies, alcohol reps, mall employees, and occasionally J.J. Abrams.
I have been tucked into the dry heat of the Valley for the last 8 months, and I've been eating almost entirely groceries, save for the occasional celebratory takeout. Shane and I have been cooking without oil or sugar or refined flour. We stopped adding salt to things and only flavored our food with a chunk of miso, or a splash of tamari, pickle juice, or lemon. We took up daily breath work and have been prioritizing an environment conducive to love and creativity.
I have been away from my former job for long enough that the food actually sounds appetizing to me again. 3 years of various almond, quinoa, kale and sweet potato combinations will ruin a menu for anyone. But nothing is ruined about this lunch. We are two happy patrons here to appreciate our old haunt, and marvel at all the post-COVID-19 changes. They operate at half capacity and less than half the staff. Servers and bartenders wear masks and face shields and do all their own bussing. Disposable paper menus and pencils denote our choices, soon to be replaced by scannable stickers that bring up the menu on your device. The floor is spotless.
The servers all come by and catch up with us while we inhale lettuce-wrapped jackfruit and perfectly blistered mushroom pizza. The sun is baking my forehead and arms but I accept it for the duration of our 2 hour visit, on principal, because we asked to sit in the sun. We have worn the forced smile of obedience as customers bop from table to table like Peter Rabbit enough times to know that we've made our bed and must now sizzle in it. Even the reflection off the marbled white tabletops has its own brand of burn. Everything is too wonderful to complain about my squinting eyes and browning forearms, except as a joke. Old comrades reflect on the evolution of restaurant work since everything closed down, reopened, closed down again, and reopened more carefully. The biggest change is that everyone really works as a team. They hypothesize that all the sh*t disruptors have opted to stay home, leaving the safer, more diligent and adaptive workers to run the show. For someone who fielded a good deal of anxiety on this patio, the quiet, open space and the time for chitchat are refreshing. At one point we cheer on a woman from two tables over, who boosts a clumsy jet black bug over the patio glass with her fork.
After the last pizza slice and a perfect shrimp taco, I ask for an espresso and see it delegated down a line of at least 3 people. The whole management team pulls up a safely distanced chair as I scoop vegan ice cream from atop an unnecessary-but-ordered-anyway brownie and plop it in my espresso. They regale us on the whole saga--closing down and making significantly reduced pay while not qualifying for unemployment; running prep, line, and takeout with 2-3 employees for the entire day for about 6 weeks (the restaurant usually runs on 30-40 employees per day); seeing footage of people running through the patio and busting the front window during the worst week of protests; dealing with a whole spectrum of Coronavirus neuroses (trying to please both pandemic-deniers and germaphobes); and finally operating on a pretty ideal flow. The far-reaching changes have brought everyone together. The humor and easy report I missed is as sharp as ever, but we all seem a little more appreciative and optimistic, and a little less hopelessly jaded. Epic kid photo updates are shared. My espresso drains as my cackles get looser and more creative. It's just so good to see everyone, to see they're all safe and healthy and in decent spirits, all making the best of a constantly changing crapshoot. The chefs have a little room to breathe and hone their technique. The servers are finding a balance of warm-humored safety--smiles still beam from behind their masks. The patrons are mostly reverent and grateful to be out safely.
The GM slips us a couple of free chrome wine keys and we take a peach sangria to go in a sealed bottle: a lockdown-era option I'm not mad at. We say our goodbyes and head for the beach where we'll scald our feet bottoms and plunge them into the passing waves for at least a mile. The beach vibe will be respectfully joyous: kids on boogie boards keeping their distance, masked beach walkers like us, and rose-cheeked surfers making their last exhausted passes.
I didn't take any pictures today, except with my mind and heart. There were a lot of moments I wouldn't have minded capturing forever (I looked super cute--you'll have to just trust), but I felt resolved to savor it, and write it down later.
I owe so much of my easy charm to the dance of tips and the lasting friendships with fellow restaurant-artist hybrids. I am forever bound by the obligation to revisit, drink a little, tip copiously, tell old stories, and hear new ones.
Thanks for lunch, y'all. :)