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When Brad A. Johnson got to the door of a restaurant he’s always liked, he saw a dozen or so people standing outside, maskless.
The sign on the door read “we recommend wearing a mask.”
Except it wasn’t just a recommendation, it’s the law in the city of Costa Mesa, California.
Johnson, The Orange County Register’s James Beard Award-winning restaurant critic, stepped inside to check in with the hostess. In the dining room, he saw people seated around the perimeter with the windows open instead of outside.
“I said, ‘You know what, cancel that reservation. I gotta go.’”
It just didn’t feel safe.
Johnson has always looked at restaurants as an experience — the atmosphere, the service “the circus of it all.” It’s not just about the food.
He still believes in that approach. But now, months into the pandemic that’s made things like eating out potentially dangerous, Johnson tweaked it.
Now, he’s critiquing the whole experience of eating out in the time of the coronavirus.
Johnson was on a furlough road trip when he first started to realize what wasn’t working in Orange County.
He visited restaurants in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles, and found businesses that were transforming how they worked for the pandemic.
Patios became spots to eat while socially distanced. Tables and chairs got intensive cleaning between diners. The hostess station moved to block the entrance and keep maskless people from entering.
“It was really shocking to me to see how different these other cities and other counties were handling it.”
When Johnson got back to Orange County, he knew he had to factor comfort and safety into his reviews.
“That’s what dining out now is,” he said. “It’s sitting on the patio, constantly looking over your shoulder at people walking through.”
How do we dine out safely while supporting restaurants and their employees?
Johnson scrapped the star rating (for now), and took what he heard from readers, guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, California’s health agency, OC’s health agency, and his own gut feeling and created a whole new way to critique restaurants — COVID Comfort Ratings.
He rates restaurants on 12 criteria (temperature checks at the door, mask enforcement, hand sanitizer, outside dining, etc.), but no one thing accounts for the A to F rating.
“It’s just the totality of it all,” he said.
For him, the underlying concept is the same as it’s always been — how’s the hospitality? Johnson isn’t the restaurant police, he said, and his approach isn’t about political beliefs. It’s about how a place treats its staff and how it makes customers feel welcome.
And, for now, that means how they’re following safety guidelines.
Food coverage has always drawn a lot of readers, said Vanessa Franko, digital director of entertainment with Southern California News Group, which includes the Register.
Visitors to that coverage are up 60% since last year, she said, and 68% in pageviews.
Before the pandemic, Johnson ate out about 10 times a week. Now, he goes between five and seven. He’s now writing about takeout. The Covid Comfort ratings get updated each week with new restaurants.
And he’s getting tested for the coronavirus every two weeks.
“So far, so good.”
He’s heard from at least a dozen restaurateurs and chefs who are thankful for the work.
“Which is interesting,” he said. “I was expecting to get some nasty grams from chefs and restaurants, but I have not received any at least that were not anonymous.”
There’s a real feeling now among food writers that they have to do everything they can to help restaurants succeed, Johnson said, and that any criticism is taboo.
He gets it.
“I think I’m doing everything that I can right now to help restaurants succeed,” he said. “In fact, that’s why I’m doing this. I’m not just doing this to help consumers make good decisions about where to eat. But I don’t want restaurants to be the cause of the next outbreak. I don’t want restaurants to have to shut down again because there were clusters tied to people eating at a handful of restaurants. I feel like we’re all in this together.
“I feel like I’m doing my part,” he said. “But I’m still a critic.”
Kristen Hare covers the business and people of local news for Poynter.org and is the editor of Locally. You can subscribe to her weekly newsletter here. Kristen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @kristenhare.