Dining Out in the Brave New World

Salmon with flower looking side
Delicious Salmon Entrée

Do you remember the ease with which we used to decide to go out for dinner? Pre-pandemic, it was as easy as perusing an app or two to find an open table at the restaurant of our choice and deciding whether to walk, drive or take an Uber. I regularly looked forward to meeting friends and family at one of our favorite spots, sharing plates, catching up with each other’s lives as we enjoyed a night out.

Well, the pandemic has altered the protocol considerably! These days, we weigh the risks of even going out. But, if we do, we check to be sure outdoor dining is available, come prepared with masks and hand sanitizer, have our phones charged to access the online menu, and are sure not to share utensils or portions; no matter how delectable someone else’s choice may be. These are the signs of the current time, as everyone seeks to find their comfort level in deciding to leave the house as the pandemic continues, all-around us.

Yes, these are inconveniences. It is easy to be anxious when navigating these extra precautions and requirements. But there is another side to the story.

We’ve accepted and are becoming used to these inconveniences because we understand they are for our safety and the common good. What about the barriers and challenges people faced during the dining out experience that preceded the pandemic?

The fact is, for people with disabilities, even pre-pandemic, dining out presented its challenges. For blind people like me, the first hurdle has always been the host or hostess. Will they recognize the halter on my guide dog as the universal sign for ADA certification and seat us? Will they address me directly, or as is more often the case, turn to the person I am with and ask them if ‘she’ needs a menu, can do stairs, can control the dog, as though I am not even there?

People with mobility disabilities might not even get in the door if steps prevent access. If they are lucky, wheelchair users might be invited to use a side or back door, usually the entrance used for ferrying garbage at the end of the workday. The challenges continue, from the ability to access the menu to navigate the way to the restaurant bathroom. Trendy high-top tables, overcrowded tabletops, insufficient lighting can make the dining experience a journey through pitfalls. All too frequently, the dining out experience for a person with disabilities becomes one fraught with anxiety and difficulties, despite the protections and entitlements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

So in these new times where every person must weigh the benefits of a restaurant experience, it was so validating to experience a restaurant meal that addressed the safety concerns caused by the pandemic and embraced the disabled patrons. I am speaking about Contento, a new restaurant in New York, opened recently by my friend and colleague Yannick Benjamin and his partner, George Gallego. A wheelchair user and expert sommelier, Yannick has long been in the process of creating an accessible and welcoming environment for absolutely all of his patrons.

The restaurant was fully outfitted for the pandemic, with outdoor seating and cutlery roll-ups. In addition to considering the health and safety pandemic concerns, Contento is designed from the ground up to ensure that disabled patrons will be as welcomed and find the restaurant as accessible as anyone else. I am speaking here of tables that are just a tiny bit taller than regular, allowing a wheelchair user to push their chair as close to the table as they are comfortable, offers accessible menus and assistive flatware, ample room around the outside tables, not only to ensure air circulation but to allow a comfortable resting place for my guide dog. The restaurant itself has no stairs, the bathrooms are not, as is so often the case in New York down a treacherous back stairway or so closet like that there is no room for a chair or dog, but available from clear pathway with enough space to allow easy use and access.

And, to top off the night, the cuisine is absolutely top-notch! The menu is varied and unique, blending Latin flavors with traditional favorites. Our heirloom tomato appetizer burst with the earthy saltiness of spices I could not identify. The bread on which the pâté was served was as fluffy and interesting as the accompanying terrine. The tuna was fresh, surrounded by oversized corn succotash, and the chocolate mousse for dessert was dense and decadent. Yannick treated us and teased our palates with superb sparkling wine, and we enjoyed every bite of the meal.

It was a treat to enjoy a restaurant experience without having to run the gauntlet of questions and challenges that so often derail the dining experience from its first moments. So why aren’t all restaurants like this?

Well, in my opinion, they should be. If the pandemic experience teaches us anything, it is that we can, and right now, we must rethink and think in new ways about how to enjoy social occasions, including dining out. We have no idea how long the current protocols for safety will continue to place demands on us to revise how we dine out. Nevertheless, we have demonstrated that we are creative, adaptive, and fully capable of devising solutions that will keep our restaurant experiences enjoyable and keep these businesses afloat. So why not go that extra way, right now, to make all restaurants as accessible as Contento?

I know that it is naïve to expect restaurants all around New York to jump right in and start renovating their premises to improve access and remove barriers. So let’s start slow and easy. Let’s see if we can train the hosts to recognize the ADA guide dog harness instead of simply refusing to seat a blind person. What if all restaurants had alternative kinds of menus designed to allow everyone to access them? Why not, when renovating to whatever standards become permanent at the end of this pandemic experience, they are made on ground level, equipped with grab rails and doors wide enough to admit a wheelchair or guide dog?

Post pandemic, I hope and believe that the world will be a more welcoming and accessible space. Contento has proved that with compassion, foresight, and execution, disabled Americans may enjoy the complete dining experience without being forced to navigate barriers and challenges. As we move forward, what a laudable goal for us all! Disabled or not, may the brave new world of dining and elsewhere demonstrate the compassion we have all learned in surviving the pandemic and provide a welcoming and more accessible experience that benefits us all.

Disability rights advocate; two term appointee by President Obama to National Council on Disability; Senior Policy Advisor to HFA; wife, mom, SF resident!