The worst part of Melbourne's lockdown has been not knowing when it will end. But for many restaurants in the hospitality industry, they now have a date on which to plan and pin their futures.
On November 2, restaurants, cafes and pubs in Melbourne will be allowed to reopen to a maximum of 20 diners indoors, and 50 outdoors.
There are caveats, however. Indoor dining is capped at 10 people per dining room. To seat 20 patrons, restaurants must have two separate rooms, and the four square-metre density rule applies. Outdoor spaces must allow for two square-metres per person. Only seated service is permitted – no mingling is allowed, a regulation that affects pubs in particular.
But for many restaurant operators, it's a positive step for the city that's endured the longest and strictest restrictions in the country. Because after more than 100 days of takeaway (and takeaway containers), the hospitality industry is ready to be hospitable again.
Like many Victorians, Alfredo La Spina watched Sunday's press conference live on television when Premier Daniel Andrews announced the industry's reopening date. "I was jumping all over the living room with my kids," he says.
He's preparing to reopen his Brunswick East restaurant Bar Idda in November. The space can seat 13 diners indoors at a time, and staff will squeeze in three sittings a night. In addition to outdoor seating, La Spina is hoping for a minimum of 39 covers. Pre-COVID, the restaurant would turn over 140 covers on Friday evenings.
"It's not amazing, but it's better than what we're doing with our takeaway model," he says. "Our business does improve once you can dine inside."
If anything, operating as a proper restaurant is a circuit breaker. Once-mundane essentials of restaurant life – Plates! Napkins! Cutlery! – are now novelties to look forward to. "Putting food on plates is a lot more enjoyable than putting it into buckets and containers," says La Spina.
Even the 25 kilometre travel radius, effective now, will bring some immediate relief. "With the five-kilometre rule lifted, we're going to be seeing a lot of old customers back in [for takeaway]."
Restaurant owner Janine Barican agrees. "The extra 20 kilometres helps a lot," she says. She concedes some in the industry may have wanted more immediate, far-reaching changes. "But we'll just take whatever they're willing to give us." (She too was watching Dan Andrews' press conference live, and was holding her breath. "He talks really slowly," she says with a laugh.)
November 2 will mark her restaurant's third opening for 2020. She launched her Filipino restaurant Chibog in February, just weeks before the March lockdown. Chibog is in West Footscray, one of the suburbs included in the postcode-specific lockdown in early July, which forced Barican to close one week before the rest of the city entered stage-three restrictions. She's eyeing off the November opening with hope. "This is my third time lucky – and three is my lucky number," she says.
In addition to density quotients, she's looking at additional ways to keep customers and staff safe. A QR-code check-in system is on the cards, as is a digital menu, viewable on diners' mobile phones. She's also investigating an online platform that allows dine-in customers to order and pay via their devices. "But they take a commission every time a customer uses that. It's tricky – it's like Ubereats, but indoors."
Plus, what's the point of having a dine-in experience without its most human component: the staff-customer interaction? "We still need that. I don't want that to go away."
Thi Le is in a trickier situation. In June, the chef and co-owner of Anchovy in Richmond tried catering to just eight diners, the maximum number allowed in her restaurant's modest-sized dining room. The November restrictions put her back in the same predicament.
"It's the same as last time. We could fill up the room with eight people, but they'd take the table all night, and weren't spending enough money per head. To run the dining room properly again, with the linen and overheads that come with it – it just wasn't viable," she says.
She's considering her options. A minimum spend per head, perhaps. Time limits to allow for two sittings per evening, though convincing diners to book in for an 8.30pm session is nowhere as fashionable as it once was. "Everyone's so used to going to bed at 9 o' clock now."
And that includes herself. "This is the most sleep I've ever had, and I'm really enjoying it," says Le. Lockdown has given her the freedom to experiment with new flavours and ideas: a crisp-skinned chicken homage to Tan Viet. Laotian sausages. Whole seafood. "When we had the restaurant, only a few tables would order the whole crab or lobster … [with takeaway], we sell about 15 mud crabs a night."
But she's found a way to cook for dine-in customers on the weekend. In November, Anchovy will be doing weekend pop-ups at Sutton Grange Winery near Bendigo. Together with partner and Anchovy co-owner Jia-Yen Lee, she's trying to figure out how to balance the regional project while also running the Melbourne operation simultaneously.
"We've never been in this position, ever. We don't have many staff to look after, we're doing okay financially, we're not tied down to the restaurant." She's not ruling out a longer, more permanent move to regional Victoria either. "It might be nice to do something that's different."
But the question remains – could the industry's reopening have come sooner? Indeed, some in the industry have lobbied for the state government to "unlock" the industry earlier rather than later, citing the decimation of a once-vibrant industry and the killing off of jobs.
"I'm kind of torn. I wish it was open earlier for people's sake and for their livelihoods. But I personally would rather [open] once and be safe, instead of opening and closing, opening and closing," says Le.
La Spina agrees. "We're not angry at the government for doing what they've been doing. People's safety comes first."
It's been an emotional year for the city's hospitality industry. But slowly, surely, the uncertainty that has riddled 2020 is being replaced with cautious hope and fortitude.
"It's taken me 11 years [to build this business], and I'll be here for another 11 years," says La Spina. He has a slogan in mind: we survived the pandemic. "I'm going to use that in my marketing."