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One food critic looks back on L.A.'s surreal pandemic summer

A dine-in group at Faith & Flower in downtown Los Angeles on June 6
A dine-in group at Faith & Flower in downtown Los Angeles on June 6.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

When I consider this surreal, disorienting summer, I’m struck by the image of restaurant workers in protective gear — the semi-anonymous faces behind plastic face shields and surgical masks loading your car trunk with takeout cartons of stringy pancit, gold-brown fried chicken or fresh-baked lasagna.

I think about the news clips showing blithe, maskless couples having brunch amid a backdrop of hand sanitizer stations and camouflaged restaurant workers and the dueling realities that sprung up around COVID safety, namely the growing tension this summer between those Americans who have adopted CDC recommended safety measures such as wearing masks in public and those who ignore or flout these mandates.

As this summer draws to an end, I think back on a conversation I had in late June with Bar Avalon general manager and sommelier Nathaniel Muñoz, who worried over what he saw as the dangerous, whiplash pace of L.A. restaurant reopenings and closings.

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Restaurant and bar reopenings ought to center on the safety and health of workers rather than the economics of an embattled industry, Muñoz told me.

“It’s irresponsible for restaurant and hotel owners to ask their employees to return to work in the midst of a health crisis as infectious as COVID-19 without operational procedures, training and equipment,” he said.

Patrons enjoy dinner outside Perle Restaurant Wednesday, July 8, 2020 in Pasadena, CA.
Patrons dining outside Perle Restaurant in Pasadena on July 8.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

It does not seem like a controversial stance to demand safe working conditions for workers, yet this week I talked to one restaurant employee who told me he’s regularly pressured to seat customers in close quarters and required by his employer to reuse disposable gloves.

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This week, The Times published a detailed report about how the rush to reopen the economy drove Los Angeles into a health crisis. The report underscores the necessity for businesses to open at a slow, measured pace to keep the transmission rates down in L.A. and to prevent the abrupt economic shutdowns and reopenings that a friend of mine recently referred to as the “corona-coaster.” It’s also a reminder that without enforcement of existing COVID safety regulations, some operators may not be in compliance.

Amid the heap of bad news this week, a flash of optimism: Some experts believe California has a shot at curbing its second surge of the pandemic.

More than a surreal stage for the pandemic extravagance of full-service brunch or the mute, contactless transactions of lonely takeout dinners, I hope this summer turns out to be the moment we turned the corner, at last, in a new direction.

What do you think? Email me at patricia.escarcega@latimes.com.

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L.A. Food Bowl returns ... in virtual form

The Los Angeles Times Food Bowl, usually held as a monthlong series of events in May, is being held this fall in virtual form, with World Central Kitchen and the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank as partners.

Events include a cook-a-thon fundraiser Oct. 17; cooking editor Genevieve Ko, cooking columnist Ben Mims and senior food writer Jenn Harris will co-host 30 chefs and celebrities from Los Angeles, the nation and the world. The Food team compiled an accompanying guide for the year’s theme, “Takeout and Give Back.”

Closer at hand, an Los Angeles Times Dinner Series kicks off Sept. 5 with a three-course collaboration meal between Jon Yao of Kato and Mei Lin of Nightshade; the menu includes dry scallop porridge and pork belly ssam. Dinners will be picked up on the day of the event, and my colleague Lucas Kwan Peterson will host a video chat with the chefs while participants dine together online.

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Have a question for the critics?

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Our stories

Jenn Harris explores the wide world of Los Angeles pickles in this week’s beautifully designed pickle issue, which includes pickling tips from L.A. chefs as well as various pickle recipes.

Betty Hallock tells us how she makes umeboshi (Japanese pickled plums).

Lucas Kwan Peterson and Ben Mims answer the eternal summer question: How do you pick a good watermelon?

Garrett Snyder reports on this week’s restaurant openings and closings.

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— Finally, check out our Los Angeles restaurant delivery and takeout guide. Have a great weekend.

A Stepmother sandwich from Cosa Buona in Silver Lake
The Stepmother sandwich from Cosa Buona in Silver Lake.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)


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