When Village Pub servers, line cooks and dishwashers clock in to work these days, they immediately have their temperature taken. They sign a form that states in English and Spanish: "I certify that I am in good health and have had my temperature checked and recorded accurately at the beginning of my workday." They deposit the pen they used into a sleek silver container labeled "used pens," put on a mask, and start their shift.
The Village Pub in Woodside reopened for both indoor and outdoor dining in June. While many of the signature touches of the 19-year-old Michelin-starred restaurant returned — the staff still uses handheld irons to steam wrinkles out of white tablecloths before setting the tables, caviar is still on the menu and service is paramount — much has changed in the age of COVID-19.
Diners can order on their smartphones from a digital QR code or physical menu, and the latter is sanitized after every use. The menu was scaled down from 60 dishes to just 15, which are now offered in a $75 per person pre-fixe model to reduce the time waiters spend at tables. Customers can only take their masks off when seated, and employees keep them on at all times. Only one employee is allowed at a table at a time unless it's to drop off dishes and leave.
The overarching goal, said Tim Stannard, founder of Bacchus Management Group, which operates The Village Pub, is to minimize the amount of interaction between employees and diners — a counterintuitive "180 degrees from our natural inclination, which is to spend as much time as we can (with customers)."
Reconfiguring The Village Pub's elegant dining room to allow for at least 6 feet of distance between tables meant operating at 50% capacity. The restaurant quickly secured the necessary permits to build an outdoor patio — which cost $50,000 — that makes up for the lost tables. On Monday evening, every table on the patio was full while a scarce number of parties sat inside. Stannard said the split between outdoor and indoor seating requests is about 70/30.
Plenty of people still want the traditional dine-in experience, he said. When Bacchus was discussing whether to resume indoor dining, they talked to staff, investors and customers. There was a "pressure — not a pressure," he corrected himself, "but interest," from the community in reopening the dining room. It's sold out nearly every night since reopening, Stannard said.
But the new outdoor deck is keeping The Village Pub afloat. Without it, the revenue from the dining room wouldn't be enough to keep the restaurant open, Stannard said. He's not sure what will happen come winter, when even in temperate Northern California, diners' appetite for sitting outdoors might wane.
For Melody Mitchell, a head waiter who's worked for Bacchus Management Group for 19 years, the biggest change is the black mask she must wear throughout dinner service. She has to smile with her eyes and talk clearly and slowly to diners.
"Health and sanitation is the new hospitality," she said.
The Village Pub front-of-house staff are on the front lines, forced into a new role of explaining and enforcing constantly shifting health regulations. They said they're constantly reminding diners who forget to put their mask on when they arrive or go to the bathroom — most of whom comply respectfully, but some, less so. The restaurant has extra masks for any diners who arrive without one.
On Monday evening, two parties who had mistakenly made indoor reservations refused to be seated inside. One man, out for his first restaurant meal since the shutdown started, was shocked that The Village Pub's dining room was open and said he thought indoor dining was still prohibited throughout California. (San Mateo County allowed restaurants to reopen dining rooms in June, though neighboring counties haven't yet.)
The staff quickly set a makeshift table outside the front door for the man and his two dining companions. The other party decided to leave, telling the general manager that their "assumption" was that only outdoor dining was allowed.
Customers have been more "casual" than the restaurant staff when it comes to health restrictions, Stannard said. Many are eager for a return to dining normalcy. But Stannard said that's the right balance in the service industry, adding: "I'd rather have us be stringent and conservative."
Inside the kitchen, a line of masked-and-gloved cooks prepped green beans, piped gougères and threw hamburger patties on the open-fire grill for a takeout order. Stannard and Chef de Cuisine Jake Burkhardt briefly pulled their masks down to taste a new vegan dish, using disposable, single-use plastic spoons.
The Village Pub cut the kitchen staff in half to allow for social distancing — which in reality is nearly impossible as servers come in and out to grab plated dishes or to drop finished plates off for the dishwasher, who wore a face shield as well as a mask.
The pandemic forced a major shift for The Village Pub, an upscale restaurant that places high value on the experience of dining in, into takeout. Pre-coronavirus, to-go orders generated less than 2% of sales for the restaurant, Stannard said. Now, delivery accounts for about 30% of sales — a number that's held since the restaurant reopened for indoor and outdoor dining.
How does a restaurant translate the Michelin-starred experience into takeout? The Village Pub sends to-go orders out with amuse bouche (the complimentary small dishes you'd get at the start of a meal in person) and plating instructions for every dish, as detailed as spooning saffron risotto into an oval shape onto a plate before topping it with sorrel-roasted chicken.
On Monday evening at The Village Pub, the sun set over the foothills and string lights turned on over the outdoor patio. One couple lingered at an outdoor table for nearly three hours, celebrating a birthday. Throughout the night, unmasked diners enjoyed plates of truffle-topped tagliatelle and lobster thermidor as the wheels of the restaurant's new system turned smoothly, invisible to them.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.