Cold, flu and COVID-19 season is upon us. As the widespread proliferation of new Omicron variants prompts warnings of another wave, cafes and restaurants are reporting a worrying drop in footfall.
Des Huynh, owner of Rudimentary in Melbourne’s Footscray, reports “some dip” in numbers over the past two weeks.
“It was actually really hard,” he says.
While Bondi Da Orazio restaurant general manager Christian Poddine says more diners have expressed concern about rising COVID numbers when calling to cancel reservations.
“Right now, the main reason I’m hearing about cancellations is COVID,” he says.
“There’s nothing you can do about it. There’s always something.”
While the decision to eat out ultimately comes down to personal risk assessment, experts advise that there are ways to minimize the chance of a serious infection at your favorite cafes and restaurants this winter.
“I think we should continue to encourage people to dine out and support local industries,” says Professor Ben Marais, co-director of the University of Sydney’s Institute of Infectious Diseases.
“If you’re in a low-risk category and you’ve done everything you can to protect yourself … the risk is exceptionally low, even in a crowded restaurant.
“But if you want to do it safely, there are some key considerations.
Marais recommends sitting outside wherever possible because more airflow reduces the risk of respiratory transmission. Outdoor seating has become a popular option for diners at Rudimentary, where a converted shipping container opens onto a leafy garden.
“When the sun comes out, 90 percent of people want to sit outside,” Hyunh says. “People feel more comfortable outside now, they feel safer.”
At the Collingwood Restaurant Hotel Jesus, restaurant manager Tom Dalton decided to keep some tables outside as he rearranged seating for the winter.
“Normally we wouldn’t do that because it’s better to sit inside when it’s cold, but we want to make sure everyone feels comfortable and safe,” Dalton says.
“Since the last lockout, we’ve definitely seen an increase in people wanting to sit outside, even if the weather isn’t great.
“It’s really essential to have that option.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been an influx of new restaurants with outdoor seating.
Whalebridge, a French bistro in Circular Quay, is a notable example for its 260 alfresco seats – fortified by an army of blankets and gas heaters.
Meanwhile, Bryony and Harry Lancaster are working on a winter outdoor seating area for their Eveleigh cafe, the Egg of the Universe.
“We’re really lucky to have an outdoor space overlooking lots of beautiful greenery,” says Bryony. “All the outdoor tables have blankets and we’ll be installing heaters soon.”
Nutritionist Elizabeth Pattalis says outdoor dining can also help protect against respiratory illnesses.
“Eating out is actually a good thing because it allows us to get our daily dose of vitamin D, which helps boost our immune system,” she says.
Where outdoor dining is not available, Professor Marais recommends choosing a table by an open window or a secluded corner away from the entrance.
“Instead of sitting in a room where everything is too warm and cozy, we should get used to the idea of keeping our coats and windows open, any air flow reduces the risk,” says Marais.
“But sitting by the door is probably not a good idea because there will be a lot more people walking past your table.
“It’s better to sit in a secluded corner: COVID is a pretty flimsy virus that doesn’t last very long in the air.”
What to order to ward off illness this winter
Maintaining a healthy diet and a strong immune system while dining is “absolutely possible,” says registered nutritionist Teresa Kryger.
“I advise my clients to check the menu for some of the dishes before they leave,” says Kryger.
Bone broth dishes are strongly recommended for their high glutamine and amino acid content.
Soulla Chamberlain, owner of Bone Broth Bar and Larder in Bronte, says a good bone broth can “bring back the dead”.
“It can give you a head cold,” he says.
Chamberlain also offers “immune-boosting flavor bombs,” or soup toppings that contain antiviral ingredients like garlic and turmeric.
Kryger says that foods containing fermented ingredients like kimchi, sauerkraut or miso are great choices for their ability to support gut function.
“If people are new to fermented foods or a little uncomfortable with the idea of sauerkraut, a good old Reuben sandwich might be a good place to start,” he says.
Fermentation features prominently at Northcote’s health food cafe Shoku Inu, where owner and chef Yoko Inoue recently turned amazake (a traditional Japanese drink made from fermented rice) into ice cream.
“I found that most health cafes weren’t really inspiring. It was always the same, like avocado on toast,” says Inu.
“I wanted to create a space where people would feel comfortable and safe, but also be inspired to try new ingredients.”
Egg of the Universe co-owner Harry Lancaster says it’s a misconception that healthy food has to be “bland and no fun”. At his Sydney cafe in Eveleigh, the breakfast bowl bursts with color from sweet potatoes, carrots and buttered cabbage.
“Orange foods are high in beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, which is essential for a strong immune system,” says Lancaster.
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