: Kathleen Nyberg / McMenamins

What to Expect at Oregon Restaurants During COVID-19

September 3, 2020 (Updated February 11, 2021)

Editor’s note: Call destinations before you visit to make sure they’re open. Stay posted on what Oregon’s new COVID-19 guidelines mean for you, and follow these steps for social distancing outdoors. Also, remember to bring your face covering, required for all of Oregon’s public indoor spaces and outdoors when keeping 6 feet of distance isn’t possible. Here’s what to know about Oregon’s outdoors right now

Top Things to Know: 

  • Bring Your Face Covering 
  • Call Ahead – Make a Reservation 
  • Be Flexible and Open to New Seating or Business Practices
  • Restaurant Staff Are Working Harder – Be Patient
  • Extra Emphasis on Cleaning  
  • Consider Takeout as an Option 

If the past year has taught us anything, it is that eating out at a restaurant in Oregon is a treat in its own right and should be appreciated as such. Servers wait on you, top-notch chefs cook for you and there are no dishes to clean afterward. But the dining experience you’ve come to know and love looks a little bit different now. 

Regulations for restaurants vary depending on which part of the state you’re in, so be sure to check your county’s Risk Level status, which determines capacity limits and whether or not a restaurant can offer indoor dining. When choosing a spot to eat, look out for restaurants that display a Commitment to Safety seal at their business or on their website. The seal is a designation by the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association (ORLA) that indicates compliance with best safety practices related to COVID-19. Whether you’ve been missing your favorite restaurant meals or are just opting out of another home-cooked meal, here are some things to keep in mind before heading out to eat.

A More Intimate Experience

Across the state, restaurants have reduced their capacity. Many establishments have opened or expanded their outdoor patio space for fresh-air dining, which is also a great option, like Terminal Gravity Brewing in Enterprise. This warm-weather trend is something that many restaurants are continuing into the winter months through covered patios, tents and outdoor heaters. No matter what their size, restaurants are required to adhere to social-distancing rules, with tables spaced at least 6 feet apart and dining party sizes limited to 10 people or fewer. While restaurants may feel a bit emptier, there is a bright side of the change: more intimacy. 

“The dining experience now includes much less distraction within your environment,” says Jason Brandt, president and CEO of ORLA. “It feels like a different experience, with more focus on who you are dining with as opposed to what’s going on around you.” Brandt added that he’s personally dined indoors and so has witnessed the safety precaution first hand. “Safety and sanitation is in our DNA,” he said. “We already know how to take care of our employees and guests, we’re just having to up our game that much more.”

During winter, many restaurants expanded their outdoor-dining offerings to meet the state requirements. All outdoor dining should include open-air space that may have a temporary or fixed cover with room for airflow. Starting February 12, 2021, a total of 22 of Oregon’s 36 counties (including the Portland metro) will once again be open for indoor dining. Those in high-risk counties are limited to 25% maximum occupancy, whereas moderate- and low-risk counties cannot exceed 50% maximum occupancy or 100 people, whichever is smaller — so it’s important to know the COVID risk level of your county.

Your Table and the Restaurant May Look Different

 Once you’ve been seated at your table, you’ll likely notice some things are missing. Restaurants across the state are not allowed to have preset tables, so you can expect to receive your cutlery from waitstaff. Condiments are now being served in single-use containers. Self-service stations, such as water stations or buffets, are not allowed, so you’ll have to rely on your waitstaff to get you what you need. The menu may also look different, as restaurants are encouraged to use single-use, laminated or white-board menus. Some restaurants are forgoing physical menus entirely, and instead placing at each table a QR code, a square-shaped barcode which when scanned with your smartphone’s camera will send you to a website to order food and drinks. 

At McMenamins’ Zeus Cafe in downtown Portland, you’ll find pens sanitized between use; the interior with a one-way entrance and exit; and tables rotated and sanitized between use. There’s a 3-stall bathroom inside with a sign on the door asking you to knock before entering, with only one person allowed in at a time. Ringlers Annex was already open-air, but now offers extended plaza seating as well. You can even play pinball, with machines socially distanced and sanitized between plays. “It’s a whole new crazy world out there,” says McMenamins’ Kathleen Nyberg. “With that said, I am in love with Harvey Milk Street being closed [for outdoor plaza seating] and hope it remains that way post-COVID.”

A masked person hands a cup of hot cocoa.
Restaurant staff are working hard to accommodate the state-mandated regulations. (Creo Chocolate by Andrea Johnson)

Call Ahead to Plan Your Meal Time

While you’re at a restaurant, pay attention to how long you’re spending at your table. Restaurants are operating at reduced capacity, so lingering at your table could mean even less business for them. Call ahead to see if reservations are required or recommended, and if not, be prepared to wait outside until seating opens up. Reservations may include an end time to set the expectations for table turnaround. “Every operator wants their customers to have an enjoyable experience,” Brandt says. “We just have to be a little more cognizant of our behavior and enjoy that flexible, casual experience in a restaurant while still being intentional so that the experience exists in the long term.” All on-site dining is required to end at 10 p.m., so keep that in mind when planning your meal. 

Restaurant Staff Work Harder

After temporary closures during the statewide lockdown and indoor-dining freezes, servers and restaurant staff are back at work and are excited to serve you. But keep in mind that they, too, are navigating this new social etiquette. Waitstaff have had to change their ingrained work patterns to accommodate new regulations and, in some instances, are having to have hard conversations with customers. Across the state, face coverings are required indoors for everyone age 5 and up except while eating and drinking. Enforcing these rules is a job that often falls to the frontline workers. Consider showing your appreciation for their efforts with a more generous tip.

Masked people exchange a bag of a food at the entrance to a restaurant.
Consider ordering takeout from your favorite local restaurant. (Paley's Place by Andrea Johnson)

Extra Emphasis on Clean

While cleanliness has been a long-standing pillar of the restaurant industry, new guidelines and best practices during COVID-19 have changed the way staff are bussing tables. “It takes a little bit longer to clean every table because we just have to be that much more particular about cleaning every surface,” says Pam Morgan, who owns McKay Cottage Restaurant in Bend. Her staff cleans every saltshaker, armchair and menu, all of which she says her customers notice and appreciate. “Paying attention to all the little details I think makes the difference,” she says. “We need to stay open; we need to keep the economy going.”

Consider Takeout as an Option

If dining out is something you’re still not ready to do, note that in each phase of reopening, you can still enjoy restaurants by ordering takeout. Some restaurants, including those that haven’t in the past, are offering curbside pickup for their to-go orders. This is a great option for a picnic or to take back to your home or hotel room. 

About The

Emily Gillespie
Emily Gillespie is a travel writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, CNN Travel and Afar magazine. She’s lived in three of Oregon’s seven regions, currently calling Portland home. She and her husband look for every opportunity to hike to a view, bike through wine country and eat their way through a new city.

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