Dinner with a Mask

Dinner with a Mask

Dinner with a mask: How bacon (and margaritas) helped me overcome my fear of dining out again

Monday marked the return of outdoor dining, and this food writer was ready to get back out there.

Sort of. As soon as I could find my purse. And my bra. And my courage.

We made it two blocks before I realized I forgot my wallet. When we finally hit the Parkway, en route to the Drifthouse in Sea Bright, the questions came as fast as the exits:

“Do you put the mask back on between bites?”

“Are they going to take our temperature?”

“How do they manage the bathrooms?”

I reviewed the Drifthouse, from Jersey favorite chef David Burke, when it opened in 2018 and lost my mind over their “bacon on a clothesline,” a treat that quickly became one of the most copied dishes in the country.

“I’ve been dying to go back,” I texted a friend, before realizing my poor word choice.

It’s hard not to consider the risk. I’ve hunkered down for the past three months, truly.

It was mid-April before we even ordered takeout, and when we did, I decided it had to be fully worthy. (Santillo’s Pizza and our local favorite, Amazing Taste in Green Brook, were the only spots that made the cut.)

I’d call myself a 7 out of 10 on the “how careful are you being now” scale — several notches below my sister, who’s still washing all her groceries in the sink.

But the thought of willingly sitting right next to other human beings, breathing, chewing and talking, while potentially — eek — maskless, for, like, two hours?

“Are we nuts?” I wondered.

Then I remembered the bacon. I felt like I could smell it from the Driscoll Bridge. I remembered the thrill of not cooking a meal yourself. Not doing the dishes. The pure hedonist luxury of a freaking cocktail menu. Remember cocktail menus?!

The Drifthouse is located inside the Driftwood Cabana Club, right on the beach, and we’d be sitting on their outdoor deck. Knowing the space and anticipating the ocean breeze gave me confidence. Besides, salt water’s a disinfectant, right?

As we walked up we masked up, because you have to go through the pool club lobby to get to the restaurant. A partition separated the folks at the front desk. Shoe-print stickers on the floor marked six feet apart and looked like an expert-level game of hopscotch.

Inside, tables were set, even though no one would be sitting at them, as our hostess led us to one of a dozen on the deck. Staff wore masks and servers had gloves on, too.

When our waitress, Janis, “with an s like Joplin,” came over, I scooted in my chair, trying to create distance without offending her. This was the first lesson I learned — there is no way for waitstaff to do their job from six feet away. Or even two feet. And if I was scared of being near her, I could only imagine how she must have felt, having to approach table after table.

She set us at ease with a joke. “There’s a smile under this mask, I swear!”

When I asked if she was happy to be back she quipped, “Oh yeah. There’s only so much of your husband you can take.”

There were moments the whole scene looked normal, until you saw someone mask up to use the bathroom.

“I love your masks!” Janis said to a mother and her two little girls as they put on colorful printed ones to go inside.

Nicholas Steighler, the manager, told me it’s been hard to get servers back, especially when they can collect unemployment plus an extra $600 a week. Needless to say, he’s happy to be open — even if they’re doing 40 seats in a space that has 260. When it comes to cash flow, outdoor dining is a drop in an empty bucket.

The trickiest part of the night was the complimentary popovers, with sesame and poppy seeds baked into the top. I caught a seed in the back of my throat and couldn’t help it: I had to cough.

My boyfriend glared as I tried mental jiujitsu to stifle the urge. The fit passed quickly, thankfully, without too much of a scene. I think.

Lesson #2: It’s impossible to keep a mask on if you’re drinking cocktails. We gave up quickly. I tucked the strap of my N95 under the candle so it didn’t blow off the deck in the breeze. It was such a strange interloper amongst the table setting I couldn’t help but take a picture.

By my second Angry Margarita (tequila blanco, orange curacao, lime, agave, tajin seasoning) I relaxed. You hit a point where you hope for the best, where you soothe yourself with that line you read about how the risk of outdoor transmission is pretty low. You surrender. You try to enjoy.

We barely ate all day in anticipation. We’ve made some nice meals at home but burrata with asparagus, green tomatoes, watermelon cubes, crisped nuggets of prosciutto and razon-thin slices of pickled onions on top? Yeah, not on our menu. Nor was the lobster, the 40-day dry-aged steak, the insane, beautiful desserts.

The deck filled up by the time we left. David Burke popped by and said hello, his fourth stop of the day as he toured his Jersey restaurants. (Dining in New York is still closed.)

He has passed the time at his home in Atlantic Highlands, cooking at home more than ever. On a whim, he started filming himself with a puppet that looks just like him, named “Lefto” since it goes on his left hand. His son edited them and put them on social media. Now Lefto’s gone viral.

“I’m certifiable,” Burke says. “But it came at a time when everybody needed a laugh.”

He had almost 200 diners each at Son Cubano in West New York and Ventanas in Fort Lee last night.

“It was a great launch,” he says of opening day. “People are excited to get out, man. If you go out to dinner a lot you forget that it’s a privilege. People watching, walking in, the energy, the hustle and bustle. There’s a show going on. Drinks coming at you. Somebody’s serving you. And you don’t have to get up because you forgot the butter or the salt. And then to read a menu and have choices. At home, most people’s repertoire is 7 dishes. … And my hats off to all the parents. Three meals a day. Wow. It doesn’t end.”

Still he says, outdoor dining “isn’t going to make anybody money.”

“Yeah, you have cash flow, but it’s break-even cash flow,” he says. “It’s gonna rain. It’s gonna get cold. This is not a business model. Plus, what happens after a few weeks when people want their streets or their parking lots back?”

For us diners, though, it was glorious to be out. The sunset. The view of the ocean and the bay, even if it got chilly as the night went on.

Farther down Ocean Avenue other restaurants buzzed with patrons, even on a Monday. This is June in Jersey. It all looked almost normal.

We were out to dinner. We were down the shore. And I felt more appreciative than ever.

Click here to read on NJ.com.