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Are you ready to eat in an L.A. restaurant tonight?

 Jonathan Garcia delivers a meal to Darryl Thibault at Saffron Thai in San Diego on May 21, 2020.
Jonathan Garcia delivers a meal to Darryl Thibault at Saffron Thai in San Diego on May 21, 2020. Restaurants began reopening for dine-in patrons in San Diego last week.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Yesterday, the state cleared Los Angeles County to reopen restaurants. They will be required to follow strict guidelines; tables spaced at least 6 feet apart are only the beginning.

In conversations with chefs and restaurant owners, my colleagues detail how the announcement feels head-spinning for many in the industry — a stew of concerns about the safety of employees and customers, clarity around government protocols and fears of another sudden shutdown should COVID-19 infection rates spike.

County Supervisor Janice Hahn’s quote in a story by Alex Wigglesworth, Ronald D. White, Andrea Chang and Jaclyn Cosgrove states the situation succinctly: “This is a fine line that we’re walking in the county of Los Angeles,” she said. “We are threading the needle between keeping the public safe and allowing our economy to reopen.”

So should I book a reservation for tonight? It’s difficult to say it but I’m deeply torn.

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I am a restaurant critic — I live in and for restaurants. Is it dereliction of duty not to be sitting at tables spaced 6 feet apart or separated by partitions, served by essential workers who take daily risks to earn an income? Do I eat only on outdoor tables? Do I worry about air circulation and ventilation enough to forgo sitting in dining rooms? Are the dangers outweighed by the need I feel to support restaurants as a vital economic engine and essential social fabric?

When the shutdown was announced mid-March, I swore to be among the first people sitting at a restaurant table anywhere in California once restrictions were lifted. I ran around the metro area nonstop for takeout the first few weeks, taking all the imposed precautions but also frantic to support the businesses that comprise my community. I still eat takeout almost daily, though without the frenzied state of mind. Driving to retrieve meals and bring them home has settled into routine.

I am not blithe about contracting COVID-19. I fell into some magical thinking at the start of the shutdown, certain that given the nature of my job I’d been exposed in restaurants and was asymptomatic. An antibody test in April proved that assumption false. (I also tested negative for the virus within the last few weeks.)

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The more the medical establishment learns about the virus and its unpredictability, the more my personal concerns have grown. I have an underlying health issue that predisposes me to blood clots; though primarily considered a respiratory disease, COVID-19 is producing alarming blood clots in some patients, sometimes leading to strokes. One of my few quarantine intimates has a father facing a serious illness; me being as careful as possible keeps him and his family safer.

Colleagues had already begun reporting on dining experiences in places where restaurants had reopened earlier this month. Times culture reporter Daniel Hernandez has a beautiful story in the Food section this weekend about his recent experiences in Bakersfield, including restaurants where he ate solo meals. Thinking through a late lunch of chile verde and tacos at Los Tacos de Huicho, he writes, “After weeks of diligently doing my part to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, I was yearning for a sit-down meal, of any sort, involving strangers. I’m a human being in mourning for our planet. I need comfort. And there are few things more comforting than the good service of the tavern, the inn, the restaurant, the kitchen, where you pay for food instead of gather and cook it for yourself.” I know his ache.

Los Angeles County, with its 10.1 million residents, remains the center of the pandemic in California. Yet restaurants need customers to survive; restaurant workers need their jobs back. The industry needs government aid that responds to the evolving situation. Plenty of us may feel more comfortable eating outside in the late-spring weather; yesterday Mayor Eric Garcetti announced a program called L.A. Al Fresco aimed at easing zoning regulations for outdoor dining (already in the works in communities such as Long Beach and San Pedro).

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For some of us, returning to restaurants will be a no-brainer. Others will be processing a perfect storm of guidelines, health concerns, conflicting reports and overlapping information, perhaps while wading through tar pits like public shaming and political coding.

Will you be eating in an L.A. restaurant tonight? Send me your thoughts at bill.addison@latimes.com.

Have a question for the critics?

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Top stories

—In this week’s Newsfeed column, Garrett Snyder includes a devastating statistic: 80% of restaurant workers in Los Angeles County have lost their jobs.

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Patricia Escárcega reports on Chino’s Centro Basco, a restaurant built on Basque traditions. Will its communal style of dining survive the shutdown?

Ben Mims teaches us to make lamb shanks with tamarind. Love this quote from our buddy Nik Sharma, writing for TASTE: “In Asian cooking, tamarind is treated just like lemons are in Western cuisine — for its ability to introduce a sour taste to food.”

—Ben also tells us about the joys of making mussels for one.

Genevieve Ko teaches us the secret to truly crisp waffles. (Also, she and I agree: Waffles are better than pancakes.)

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—We’re all still baking at home, yes? Genevieve gives the banana muffin an update.

A pot of sticky-sour tamarind lamb shanks, a recipe by Ben Mims.
(Silvia Razgova / For The Times)


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