It’s not business as usual at L.A.’s restaurants as photographer Pamela Chelin found when she set out to document how they are adapting to coronavirus pandemic.
Local restaurants are reckoning with how to reconfigure their dine-in spaces to accommodate regulations aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19. Restaurant owners had to get creative to make sure their patrons and staff are as safe as possible, as some regulations require them to procure personal protective equipment, reduce dining room capacity to 60% and ensure diners can practice social distancing.
And it hasn’t been easy. Eater LAreported in mid-June that half of L.A. County restaurants resuming service are not compliant with all the rules.
During this unique window of time, journalist and photographer Pamela Chelin visited a number of L.A.’s culinary mainstays, including normally busy and popular eateries like Dan Tana’s and Figaro Bistrot to document how different their dining rooms look during the pandemic.
“Everyone is going through this together, and people have been incredibly kind and down-to-earth wherever I’ve gone,” Chelin says. “The tremendous difficulty of what everyone has gone through with this brutal pandemic seems to have created a greater sense of community between customers and staff, staff and staff and customers and other customers who are sitting a couple of tables away. That’s been heartwarming to witness and experience.”
Her photos depict booths and counters marked off with tape or filled with mannequins to designate where diners can’t sit. Outdoor patios seem more spacious than usual, as they have been primed for social distancing. Small details like cups for used and unused pens and disposable menus are also a common sight. Restaurant workers in the required PPE lend a hospital-like austerity to the otherwise relaxed spaces.
Restaurants around the city have also grown outward, extending dining space onto sidewalks so diners can eat alfresco while distanced — an unexpected departure for a city with a preference for dining inside despite nice weather.
“There’s a beauty to the resourcefulness I’ve been seeing,” Chelin says.
In speaking with restaurateurs, Chelin notes that everyone had an upbeat attitude to make the best of it.
“I didn’t encounter any reluctance as far as being on board with this new normal at all,” she says. “That being said, of course, it’s a lot of extra work as far as sanitizing procedures, erecting barriers, taping off areas, etc. And it’s hard to be able to open up a venue and be limited to half capacity which doesn’t fill up.”
New capacity rules also mean that staffing is also in limbo.
“I was told that scheduling staff at some places has been hard, as it’s hard to anticipate how many customers will show up and how much staff will be needed,” Chelin says. “So some places aren’t scheduling as far ahead as they normally do.”
Some restaurants, like Silverlake Ramen in downtown L.A., have gone above and beyond the required measures and are taking patrons’ temperatures as they enter their establishments.
Other eateries, like Brothers Freshwich in Koreatown, have yet to reopen their dining rooms. Co-owner John has a newborn baby at home, and the recent death of a friend’s father due to the coronavirus has led him to take an abundance of caution.
Still, despite precautions, dining out is a risk only some are willing to take. Especially as confirmed COVID-19 cases continue to spike higher. Many restaurants just aren’t as busy as they were pre-COVID and business is not business as usual.
“There’s also still so much uncertainty as to how long things will have to stay this way,” Chelin says. “Some places are busier than others. Some places are worried about their future and how long they can survive under these circumstances, but they are doing their best to take it day by day right now.”