Amidst Covid-19 fears, we have reservations about dining out while chefs, restaurant owners and food purveyors are going through a tough phase to simply survive — listen to their pleas. 

It seems like everything is going back to normal — well, not really.

We are in a transitional phase where things are so unpredictable, and it’s hard to foretell what the rest of the year looks like. And it’s not looking any better for the F&B industry.

The dining scene is slowly resurfacing after Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced on April 30 that eateries can resume dine-in beginning May 4 in accordance to stringent CMCO conditions and standard operating procedures (SOPs). It has been a few weeks now and restaurants are still struggling to get back their groove for obvious reasons. Some remain shuttered, but delivery services continue to take place.

The question remains — are we ready to dine out yet?

Founder and owner of The Marini’s Group, Modesto Marini opens: “Most restaurants and cafes are ready to open for business for several reasons and those who do will do so cautiously. The industry is adapting to the many changes that have affected it and many business owners are taking the necessary steps to keep things going. In that sense, ‘food is life’ now takes on several meanings.”

If you have always been the live-to-eat kind of person, being able to dine out is music to your ears. But for many, dining out is no longer a casual thing. “People will be dining out mostly for special occasions,” shares Chef Raymond Tham of Skillet@163.

Be ready for temperature checks, identification and other new SOPs when visiting restaurants. (Photo: Hanson Lu on Unsplash)

There will be more attention on hygiene and safety. Temperature checks upon entry and identification measures will be part of the new normal, and will be expected to continue for a while. This sensibility starts not just within the restaurants’ perimeters but also within the minds of diners. In this new climate, we need to understand the importance of helping one another with a common goal.

People need to help revive the industry, motivate and support our great chefs, cooks and restaurant owners, and beyond that as diners, we need the stimulation of a buzzing dining room, the energy of the kitchen, the skill of perfectly cooked and plated food,” shares foodie and PR consultant, Aja Ng.

As much as we want to help our favourite restaurants stay open through this pandemic, there’s also a line to be drawn. She continues: “We are also not ready to dine out because it’s an all-new landscape where everyone still needs to find the balance. How do you deliver a safe restaurant ‘experience’ yet be as contactless as possible? How do you ensure every member of your team toes the line?”

Can you trust these restaurants?

It all boils down to trust. Everything is being monitored and scrutinised right now. Uncertainties loom around as only the bold and brazen of diners are brave enough to walk into a restaurant and get back to their usual dining habits. Of course, we too, want to return to our favourite restaurants as soon as we can.

“But readiness starts with every individual,” quips Sricharan Venkatesh, Head Chef at Nadodi KL.

Restaurants Covid-19 closing
A regular scene at restaurants and cafes. (Photo: Victor He on Unsplash)

And I have to agree to a certain extend. As much as dining out sounds like a great idea after weeks of being homebound, I have reservations. The ‘what ifs’ and ‘buts’ infest my mind, and very quickly, I’d either do a takeaway or cook at home.

I visited a cafe last weekend to somewhat check out the dining scene. To my surprise, a good smack of people are enjoying their brunches in the cafe. It is hard to tell whether they are adhering to the right SOPs or not, but it is really that sense of comfort that you get from your regular eateries around you that will calm those jitters.

I feel we are slowly getting prepared with time. Until today at Nadodi we saw a good number of people opting for dining in so far and there are few more reservations for this month. Since it’s a matter of trust and it needs to be built, starting from the government and health authorities who are trying their best and has managed to build some trust amongst Malaysians, restaurants too are trying to build that with their patrons,” Sricharan continues.

Are restaurants closing?

It is inevitable. Many independent restaurants will shut.

With social distancing rules in place, restaurants will also find it hard to make a profit. The normal capacity has to be cut to half, and revenue nosedives significantly. Restaurant owners are also grappling the brutal math that undermines their industry. With margins razor-thin, we can expect dining places to bite the dust in coming months.

Don’t be surprised to return to malls to find your favourite eateries hoarded and closed down. Even bubble tea shops at Subang Jaya SS15 face closure as owners put up their shops for rent and sale as reported in this news. More recently, one of our favourite farm-to-table restaurants Sitka Eating House has announced its closure in end May 2020.

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Sitka will be closing its doors and switching off the cookers for the last time on Sunday 31st of May. We had to make the incredibly tough decision of not renewing our lease and closing Sitka for now. Studio will do the same on 31 August 2020. Both are independent restaurants, completely self funded by us (Jenifer + Christian). 7 years ago, in a different culinary landscape we had the idea of having a restaurant where we decided what was on the menu. Creative dishes that changed regularly as and when it pleases us. Definitely a first in Kuala Lumpur and still, one of only a handful today. It is fair to say that opening was not plain sailing as the public are a fickle bunch. Eventually we found our rhythm and found our guests who have been with us ever since. Next came Studio, every chef’s dream; open kitchen, tasting menu only, open as and when we please. It was not a brilliant business model but it was our rules and has gone on to perform as we intended. An intimate dining experience with an attention to detail and always delicious, never pretentious. We have both been so fortunate to work with the best team of talented people over the last 7 years and our restaurants could only have existed in the form we love due to the incredible hard work of every single one involved. The current pandemic is devastating and will change the way society behaves, whether it is dining out, shopping for groceries or catching up with friends, or having a glass of wine. We are not immune to its effects. This is not goodbye, we will re group and bid you all hello again. We had big plans for 2020 which will be on the backburner for now but rest assured we’ll be BACK ! #fuckcorona

A post shared by Sitka Winebar & Eatinghouse (@sitkarestaurant) on

For Dewakan, it’s almost zero business. “Like everybody else, we have had a huge dent but I think what was different is that it allows us the opportunity to explore different modes of business and what else we could do (to innovate),” shares Dewakan’s chef and owner, Darren Teoh. “The situation has also allowed us to discover hidden skillsets of our staffs and made things a bit more interesting for us.”

Some chefs also have taken this little ‘break’ to take respite and rethink their approach moving forward. With intent to cut cost, simplify, innovate and recalibrate daily operations, many resort to delivery and takeaway services, as well as selling gift vouchers to spend after MCO. Some restaurants including Skillet, Entier and Dewakan also have ready-to-cook packages to bring the fine dining experience to their customers’ home.

roasting bird at dewakan
How long can restaurants sustain amidst Covid-19 if people aren’t doing their part to support local businesses? (Photo: Dewakan)

If restaurants are innovating and doing everything they can to survive, are consumers ready to play their part?

Are you ready to go out and dine again?

You can’t stop people from going out whether for the right reasons or not. We are not encouraging constant visits to your favourite restaurants but if you’re taking the right precautions, why not? These eateries need you more than ever.

So, it is the right thing for restaurants to open their doors with some sort of hopefulness that customers will flock in because people will go out at some point. However, it is still very much a chicken and egg scenario.

“People are going out not because they have to feed themselves, but because they are social creatures. At some point, they will work their way around a pandemic that has never been recorded before,” expresses Dewakan’s Darren Teoh.

The pandemic has taught us to be strong and resilient. But it has also taught many to be rather self-centric people. On one end, we as consumers are afraid of the consequences of ‘going out’. And on the other end, we also hold the power to help revive the dining scene — not only helping restaurateurs and chefs motivated, but revitalising business chains for food purveyors as well.

Are we willing to do that?

“I believe most establishments are ready for business with the proper SOPs to keep everyone safe. I miss dining at my favourite restaurants like Ember Modern Bistro, Kampung Contemporary Dining, Dewakan, Apollo Dining and Japanese Omakase restaurants — and these definitely cannot be a dine-at-home experience,” shares David Lei, founder of seafood purveyor Fish For It.

He continues: “In fact, I was recently at a food tasting at Ember for its new dine-in menu. It felt good to see familiar faces and enjoy a great meal. We’ve been missing the human interaction. I’m always happy to support my clients and restaurants as well.”

Will buffets be a thing of the past? (Photo: Atas Modern Malaysian Eatery)

When it comes to dining habits, the ‘new norm’ will change the way we eat outside in the light of social distancing and multitudes of SOPs. Restaurants have to be ready to manage all possible situations and circumstances during this time — and there’s no definite way with this. There will be a curveball along the way and those running restaurants and cafes have to be prepared.

Chef Tyson Gee of Atas Modern Malaysian Eatery adds: “Restaurants will have to redevelop the idea of ‘sharing’ as diners may not be so keen to share dishes around the entire table.”

Are we living in fear?

Naturally, most people are afraid.

But it is pointless to have even the most fearless kitchen team if there are no diners.

“The feeling isn’t there anymore. The buzz of a busy dining room and the tension in the kitchen — it goes hand in hand. The customers’ energy feeds the kitchen and the kitchen’s energy feeds the customers,” confides Christian Recomio, chef and co-owner of Sitka Eating House.

The ‘new norm’ forces restaurants to shelf creativity and focus on comfort food, which means fancy dining and those trying to do something cult-like or unique will struggle. People will opt for basic necessities and food that comforts and nourishes the soul. And a touch of nostalgia wouldn’t hurt as well.

local homegrown Malaysian produce figs
Food experts are looking at a greater support towards local produce and homegrown businesses moving forward. (Photo: Mutiara Figs)

Resources are also readily available online, and many have already picked up essential cooking skills at home like making burnt cheesecakes, bread and even Michelin-starred dishes. Except for ardent foodies and loyal patrons, restaurants will face more challenges in getting new regulars to walk in to dine again because of one thing — is it really necessary?

Let’s be real. We are living in unprecedented and unpredicted times but we are still okay. We aren’t dragged down the ground or running for our lives from bullets and bombs. We are okay and will be okay.

So, are we ready to dine out? — we are and we aren’t.

Messages from chefs, restaurateurs, purveyors and food experts. 

(Featured image: Anastasiia Chepinska on Unsplash / Hero image: Aaron Khor, Dewakan)

Martin Teo
Content Editor
Martin loves traveling the world to see ancient ruins and classical architecture. He enjoys the culinary experience of various cities but (still) refuses to eat anything insect-like. On a daily basis, he finds time hitting the gym to compensate for the amount of food he needs to eat just to write an article.