The Fall Dining Scene

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Restaurants scrapped printed menus and told diners to scan QR codes. Plexiglass partitions were installed between tables. Restaurants began selling more merchandise and even kitchen goods.

Last fall, my colleagues in the Food section and I wrote about the changes to restaurants since the start of the pandemic. Looking at that list a year later, I’m surprised by how many have stuck: It feels less common these days to receive a physical menu, for example.

But this period of upheaval is far from over. The pandemic and its side effects, like inflation and supply chain problems, are still presenting challenges for restaurant owners.

Diners will continue to encounter these changes this fall, which is typically a boom time for the business. New places open, and foot traffic picks up as the weather cools off. (For New Yorkers, The New York Times has a guide to the openings we are the most excited about.)

In today’s newsletter, I wanted to tell you what to expect when you go out to eat this fall.

Outdoor dining is still here

What was once a temporary solution to help restaurants has become a long-term setup. Across the country, it’s common to see dining tables on sidewalks, in parking lots and in streets. Owners are investing heavily in making their outdoor spaces look as nice as their dining rooms, bringing in plants, colorful awnings and artificial grass. A few weeks ago, I reported on the ubiquity of a $149 cordless LED lamp, which has added a cozy glow to outdoor dining tables in cities like New York and Miami, no candle required.

Some cities have stopped short of allowing outdoor dining year-round. Many restaurants are pushing for it because the extra seats increase sales. Critics say outdoor tables can disrupt public spaces, interfering with pedestrian and street traffic. For now, just hope for good weather when you book one. (My tip: Check restaurant Instagram accounts to see whether the outdoor space is covered.)

And so is inflation

Restaurant checks are getting more expensive, and they may continue to. Don’t be surprised to see $15 French fries. Even ice cream truck owners are dealing with higher costs for sprinkles and cones.

That’s because food costs are rising — 10.9 percent in July compared with a year earlier, even though the pace of overall inflation has cooled. Energy costs were up 32.9 percent, too. (The data for August will be released next week.) Restaurants, which already operate on thin margins, are often passing those costs on to customers.

My colleague Umi Syam and I broke down how inflation has affected the dinner bill through the lens of a single restaurant, Good Food on Montford, in Charlotte, N.C. The owner, Bruce Moffett, said he was having to pay more for wine because of inconsistent grape harvests resulting from climate change. Flour prices are up because of grain shortages caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

More volatility

When I was traveling this past spring to report on our annual list of standout restaurants, I quickly realized that open hours posted on websites weren’t always reliable. I’d show up to find a sign on the door that said the restaurant was closed because the owners didn’t have enough employees to work that day. With many places still unable to find workers, some owners are opening their restaurants only a few days a week or being forced to close unexpectedly. Others just want to give their staff members time off to recharge.

For restaurants that don’t accept reservations, try calling or sending a message on Instagram to confirm that they’re open. If you really want to eat at a particular spot, be flexible and patient.

That volatility extends to other parts of restaurants’ operations: Because supply chain issues have limited the availability of some ingredients, menus may be shorter, or favorite dishes may be gone. Staffing shortages may mean longer wait times for food.

I had many incredible meals during my travels for our restaurants list, and I don’t take being able to dine out for granted. But the reality is that dining is more expensive and less predictable than it once was.

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