Tables of relaxed diners laughed and air-clinked glasses of wine. Runners whisked platters of chilled East Coast oysters to tables. Our friendly server recommended a refreshing mezcal cocktail fitting for the warm day. Two of our closest friends arrived mid-meal, excited to engage with us and the outside world. Lunch lazed on for hours. We were back.


I dined at a restaurant last week for the first time in 12 weeks. My wife, who spent childhood summers on the North Carolina coast, had declared that she wanted to spend the afternoon of her birthday eating seafood and drinking cold white wine on the patio at Perla’s on South Congress Avenue. I was happy to oblige.


I’m a pretty decent cook. And I’ve gotten better over the past three mostly homebound months. But my crab cakes never seem to find the balance of creaminess and bronzed crackle like the ones at Perla’s last week. The plumped scallops that lunch didn’t demand my anxious attention to timing; no knife work was required of me for a fine chiffonade; and no juice pressing needed for the ceviche’s tart citrus bath. And, the real luxury: no dishes to be done, no mess to clean.


We’ve supported restaurants through takeout and donations to various causes over the past three months, but with restaurants having spent the past month or so fine tuning their operations to adjust to the threats of the coronavirus, we felt the time had come to dine outdoors.


We chose Perla’s for the seafood and, just as importantly, the expansive deck, but we also dined there because we knew its operating company, McGuire Moorman Hospitality, had spent about a month honing its practices across its large portfolio of restaurants since reopening dining rooms and patios.


A masked server met us (also masked) at the sole entrance to the deck, other points of ingress blocked to control traffic. We removed our masks after being seated in a covered portion of the deck that was once home to four tables but now featured only two, allowing ample space between us and other diners.


We hurried to place our masks back over our faces each time the server returned for more than a few seconds. While he made it clear that such precautions were not necessary, we wanted to respect his health and safety as much as ours. Transmission is unlikely from a safe distance over a short period of time outdoors, experts say, but we wanted to be considerate. My wife asked our server how he felt being back on the floor and if customers seemed properly cautious. He admitted he’d been a bit reluctant to return to work, as his wife is immunocompromised, but he needed to make money. Wearing masks protects you and other people.


Almost every customer I witnessed seemed to have no problem following the request that diners wear masks while in public spaces at the restaurant. But there was at least one exception. I saw a woman blow past the host stand to search for her friends. An employee followed her and politely offered a mask to wear into the dining room. The woman rolled her eyes, snapped the mask from the employee and placed it over one ear, only to dramatically whip it from her face upon entering the restaurant, eyes rolling the whole time. The privilege wafted off her like the stink of rotten fish.


There were other minor, almost imperceptible adjustments. We kept our single-use menu tableside for reference throughout the lunch, and Perla’s snazzy coasters with their signature coastal design had been removed, which led to some pooling of water from sweaty glasses.


But an entitled patron, a wet table and the de rigeur use of a mask did nothing to detract from a joyous return to one of my favorite rituals: enjoying quality dishes, professionally cooked and served by hospitable staff, while relaxing and celebrating with friends (ones who endured their own tangle with COVID-19 in April) as we engaged in meaningful conversation surrounded by others we hope were doing the same.


While it obviously didn’t feel "normal," and likely won’t for quite some time, it was great to be back.


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