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A guide to outdoor dining at Yakima restaurants

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Editor’s note: The Yakima Health District announced Wednesday that indoor dining at restaurants, taverns, breweries, wineries and distilleries will be allowed at 25% capacity starting Thursday. For more details, see the story on Page 1A today.

Remember when you were a kid, and you got to go to a restaurant for dinner?

That was a big deal. Instead of your dining room with the family photos on the wall and the same table and chairs where you always ate, you’d get to feel special. Maybe there’d be a tablecloth. Maybe a jukebox. A server would come to your table and ask what you wanted to eat. It was an experience, and I don’t mean an “experience” like in dumb marketing-speak, but an actual anything-can-happen-because-I’m-out-here-on-the-town-with-all-of-these-people, capital-E Experience.

That specific excitement wore off over the years. You got older and got used to eating at restaurants. You could go any time you wanted. Dining out became something you relied on, a regular part of adult life. But, still, it was more than just a way to get food. I mean, the food is obviously the driving force. But there’s also the atmosphere, the service, the excitement you get trying a new place or the comfort you feel when you’re a regular.

That’s something I’ve missed. I’ve been getting a lot of takeout from local restaurants but haven’t sat down to eat at one since early March. (You know, a million years ago, back in early March.) But now, nearly two months after dining outdoors at restaurants was first allowed under Yakima County’s Roadmap to Recovery, and with the spread of COVID in Yakima County slowing dramatically, it’s starting to sound kind of nice. The time away has made me remember what a big deal it is to go out to eat.

There’s something else, too. It’s significant that the restaurant reopening hasn’t led to spikes in COVID-19 cases. It’s been done with strict regulations on the restaurants and patrons — at least 6 feet between tables, single-use menus, no more than five to a table, only members of the same household may dine together — and both sides have bought in. That right there is a glimmer of hope. Maybe it means we’ve learned how to better exist amid this pandemic. Maybe it points to some kind of “normal” somewhere down the road.

We’ve done well enough that starting Thursday, indoor dining is now permitted at 25% capacity at restaurants, taverns, breweries, wineries and distilleries.

Yakima restaurateur Graham Snyder sees that glimmer of hope. His downtown dumpling and noodle house E.Z Tiger reopened its patio as soon as it was allowed in early July, and his larger downtown restaurant, Cowiche Canyon Kitchen & Icehouse Bar, will be back up and running starting Tuesday.

“That light at the end of the tunnel is going to mean so much to a lot of people,” he said. “We’re such social animals, and what we’ve learned through all of this is that we really need that. Deeply. That, ‘Come in, let us take care of you.’ We want to give you that back. ... To provide food to somebody is one of the most meaningful interactions you can have.”

And, yeah, it’s not exactly normal right now. You have to wear a mask when you’re not at your table. You can’t approach your friends when you spot them two tables down. Maybe the menu at your favorite place has shrunk out of the need for efficiency. But customers have gotten past that pretty quickly, Snyder said. And once they have, they’ve found some blessed fragment of what life used to be like.

“Everyone has just been so excited to be feeling a little normal again,” he said. “Once you hit the table, all of the kind of goofy stuff you have to go through to get there is worth it.”

That’s how it’s been for customers across town at WaterFire Restaurant and Bar, too, said executive chef and general manager Derrin Davis. The restaurant’s expanded outdoor seating area can accommodate up to 64 people, and it’s frequently near full these days, he said.

“We have waits at times around lunch,” Davis said. “And Friday and Saturday nights have been really busy.”

There’s still plenty of uncertainty for restaurants, but outdoor dining is helping, and indoor dining should help even more, even at reduced capacity.

“It’s enough to keep us going,” Davis said. “We’ve been very, very fortunate to be in the position we’re in. But none of us are out of the woods.”

Reach Pat Muir at pmuir@yakimaherald.com.

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