By: Ethan DeWitt, Concord Monitor
For a moment, everything seemed back to normal. The Common Man upper deck brimmed with lunchtime customers sitting in the sun. Diners worked through drinks and sank into lobster rolls. They caught up on little things and big changes, from weekend plans to new pregnancies.
And then Charles the waiter returned in black gloves and an American flag mask, and reality barged back in.
Across New Hampshire Monday, restaurants launched into a new phase of pandemic reality: outdoor dining. Following weeks of shuttered indoor seating and attempts at takeout and delivery, restaurants were allowed to experiment putting diners in tables outdoors after Gov. Chris Sununu relaxed his previous shutdown order in response to COVID-19. Some did; others waited on the sidelines.
The transition is a work in progress. At the Concord Common Man, the staff outnumbered the customers at Monday lunch hour. All of the dozen or so wooden picnic tables in the parking lot stayed empty, as customers flocked to the upper decks.
But the seats that did fill went to some old friends and regular customers.
Normally, David Masinich comes in often – practically daily, he joked. On Monday, he and his wife were up on the deck, perched against the wall. Further back was Linda Pike.
In better days, Masinich and Pike are part of a Common Man group of regulars, a loosely associated group of friends that manage to keep finding each other in the bar or at the tables for lunch. That gang has dissipated as restaurants have shut down in-house services. And if Monday was the first spark, a full return for the group is a long way off.
Still, Masinich was just happy to be back. “We’ve been stuck in our house for two months,” he said. “It’s not back to normal, but it was wonderful to be out socializing again.”
The conversation picked up where it had left off. The staff bustled about disinfecting doors and tables. Charles, a server beloved to the group, darted in and out with pepper mills and water glasses, stopping for commentary and life updates.
“It definitely beats eating lunch alone every day,” said Pike.
Times have been hard for the service industry, but these are the scenes that some restaurants are hoping to capitalize on in the coming weeks: the eager return of diehard regulars in a new era.
At least for now that means tables six feet apart and waitstaff wearing masks. Customers may be asked to wear masks as well as they enter and exit the property, and if they go inside to use restrooms.
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