WESTFIELD, NJ — For Jaime Chaves, the strangest part is not seeing people smile.

Sitting in the empty dining room of Xocolatz, the restaurateur explained the peculiarities of business in the time of the coronavirus. Waiters paced by in blue face masks, in contrast with their all-black uniforms. In the kitchen, cooks scurried around donning the necessary personal protective equipment.

“We'd like to see people smile,” he said through a black face mask. “We miss that. We do smile, but you can't see it behind the mask.”

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It was 7:15 p.m., and for the first time in three months, the restaurant could serve customers in-person, though only at outdoor tables. Waiters ferried sandwiches, salads and other meals to the parking-lot turned outdoor dining area, with a canopy draped over tables ⁠— spaced six feet apart, of course.

“It is very weird, it's definitely not the same,” Chaves said of the outdoor-only dining. “But we are glad people are coming out and coming back.”

Restaurants, among the hardest hit industries during the coronavirus pandemic, are starting to reopen. Since mid-March, eateries throughout the Garden State shuttered in-person dining to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19, and as of June 15, they are now open for outdoor dining. 

At a limited capacity, they are navigating the new normal, mandated by the state — required temperature checks of employees, rigorous sanitation and a socially distanced dining experience. Self-service buffets, salad bars and drink stations are banned, and customers are greeted with signage reminding them to not dine with COVID-19 symptoms. 

Despite the new guidelines, though, many are happy to be back.

“With the outside opening up, it’s just such a relief,'' said Jim Elenis, co-owner of the Westfield Diner. 

The restaurant’s parking lot turned into an outdoor dining area with a white tent pitched above tables — a far cry from the diner’s vinyl booths and round counter stools — but according to Elenis, being able to serve in-person was a step closer toward the classic diner experience.

“It’s a part of the social culture, coming to the diner,” he said. “Being greeted and talking. As opposed to just ordering in and opening the door finding your food there with no-contact deliveries.”

Through his blue mask, he added with a chuckle, “People couldn't wait to get their pork rolls, cheese fries, burgers and milkshakes [today]. They couldn't wait.”

On the south side of town, Hassan Diwane, owner of La Casa, is experimenting with outdoor dining for the first time ever. Standing by the register and occasionally checking the pizza ovens, he explained some of the complications of outdoor dining, from the South Avenue traffic to the dependence on weather. 

“I don't think we can [serve outdoors], when it's cold,” he said. “People don't want to be uncomfortable outside. Even when it's a very hot day, people don't want to sit outside.”

Current state guidelines, which are indefinite, force restaurants to operate for takeout and delivery only during inclement weather.

Stephan Bocket, co-owner of Chez Catherine, said the upscale French restaurant will be dining alfresco Wednesday night for the first time in 40 years. He conceded they are not used to the outdoor setup, but the restaurant has managed to adapt with the times — including takeout of escargot and foie gras for the first time ever when the pandemic hit. 

“It’s not the same ambiance of [dining] inside,” he said. “But we'll try to make it as much as we can.”

Bocket said he envisioned an experience similar to eating in a backyard, with lighting in the bushes, candles on the table and faux grass covering the asphalt. 

“We will make it work,” he said.

Despite the increase of in-person contact, restaurant workers dismissed worries of coronavirus spreading to employees or other people. Richard Hernandez, a waiter at Xocolatz, said he wasn’t worried about becoming a vector of transmission, as long as he took the right precautions. 

“I'm not getting as close to people,” he said, wearing a face mask and black latex gloves. “I drop off food. I wear my gloves, my mask. I clean the table whenever someone leaves. I even put hand sanitizer on top of my gloves.”

Despite the cautions, though, some restaurant owners are nostalgic for business as usual — having people gathered indoors for a meal, masks removed. 

“Hopefully a vaccine or some kind of treatment can come,” Chaves said. “So we can finally smile at each other and shake hands.” 

Email: danieljustinhan@gmail.com | Twitter: @danieljhan_

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