How to avoid restaurant sickness this winter
Cold, flu and COVID-19 season is upon us. As widespread transmission of new Omicron variants triggers warnings of another wave, cafes and restaurants are reporting a worrying drop in footfall.
Des Huynh, owner of Rudimentary in Melbourne’s Footscray, reports “a sharp decline” in numbers over the past two weeks.
“It was actually really difficult,” 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 biggest reason I hear cancellations is COVID,” he says.
“There’s nothing you can do about it. There’s always something.”
While the decision to dine out ultimately comes down to a personal risk assessment, experts advise there are ways to minimize the risk of serious infection at your favorite cafes and restaurants this winter.
“I think we should always encourage people to dine out and support local industry,” 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 there are a few key considerations if you want to do it safely.”
Marais recommends sitting outdoors whenever possible, as greater air circulation reduces the risk of respiratory transmission. Outdoor seating has become a popular option for diners at Rudimentary, where a repurposed shipping container opens onto a leafy garden.
“When the sun comes up, 90% of people want to sit outside,” Hyunh explains. “People feel more comfortable outside right now, they feel safer.”
At the Hotel Jesus restaurant in Collingwood, restaurant manager Tom Dalton opted to leave some tables outside when rearranging seating for the winter.
“We wouldn’t usually do that because it’s nicer to sit inside when it’s cold, but we want to make sure everyone feels comfortable and safe,” Dalton said.
“Since the last lockdown, we’ve definitely noticed an increase in people wanting to sit outside, even when the weather isn’t great.
“It’s really essential to have that option.”
Since the start of the pandemic, there has been an influx of new restaurants with terraces.
Whalebridge, a French bistro in Circular Quay, is a notable example for its 260 outdoor seats – fortified by an army of blankets and gas heaters.
Meanwhile, Bryony and Harry Lancaster are working on winter-proof outdoor seating at their Eveleigh cafe, Egg of the Universe.
“We’re really lucky to have an outdoor space that overlooks a lot of beautiful greenery,” Bryony says. “All outside tables have covers and we will soon be installing heaters.”
Nutritionist Elizabeth Pattalis says eating outdoors can also help protect against respiratory conditions.
“Eating out is actually a good thing because it helps us get our daily dose of vitamin D, and it helps boost our immune system,” she says.
When outdoor dining isn’t available, Professor Marais recommends choosing a table near an open window or in 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 airflow reduces risk,” says Marais.
“But sitting near the door is probably not a good idea because there will be a lot more people passing by your table.
“Better to sit in a remote corner: COVID is quite a fragile virus that doesn’t last very long in the air.”
What to order to ward off disease this winter
It’s “absolutely possible” to maintain a healthy diet and strong immune system while dining out, says nutritionist Teresa Kryger.
“I advise my customers to check the menu for certain dishes before leaving,” says Kryger.
Dishes using bone broth are highly recommended for their high levels of glutamine and amino acids.
Soulla Chamberlain, owner of Bone Broth Bar and Larder in Bronte, says a good bone broth can “bring the dead back”.
“It can knock the cold to the head,” she says.
Chamberlain also offers “immune-boosting flavor bombs,” or soup additives, which contain antiviral ingredients such as garlic and turmeric.
Kryger says dishes with fermented ingredients such as kimchi, sauerkraut or miso are great choices for their ability to support bowel function.
“If people are new to fermented foods or find the idea of sauerkraut a bit off-putting, a good old-fashioned reuben sandwich might be a good place to start,” she says.
Fermentation takes center stage at Northcote’s Shoku Inu health food cafe, where owner and chef Yoko Inoue recently turned amazake (a traditional Japanese drink made from fermented rice) into ice cream.
“I found most health-focused cafes weren’t really inspiring. It was always the same, like avocado on toast,” Inu says.
“I wanted to create a space where people feel comfortable and safe, but also inspired to try new ingredients.”
Egg of the Universe co-owner Harry Lancaster says it’s a misconception that healthy eating should be “bland and devoid of pleasure”. At his Sydney cafe in Eveleigh, the breakfast bowl is bursting with color thanks to sweet potatoes, carrots and buttered kale.
“Orange foods are high in beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A, which is essential for a strong immune system,” says Lancaster.