I got an early glimpse of the future of dining. Here's what it looks like.

Mark Kurlyandchik
Detroit Free Press

TRAVERSE CITY — The place looks open, but you can’t quite tell from the street. So you strap on your mask and approach to investigate, steeling yourself for the awkward exchange ahead.

At the entrance to the stanchions — the only way in — you’re greeted by a bird's nest of hand sanitizer and a sign listing the rules to enter: Wear a mask when not seated. Maintain 6 feet of distance between parties. Forget your cash; they don’t want it. But don't forget to wash your hands!

Messages posted at the entrance of Trattoria Stella in Traverse City on May 22, 2020.

“Hit the sanitizer,” says a man standing behind a podium ahead. A bandanna covers his face, leaving just the narrow gaze of his eyes sizing you up, searching for some recognition and then, receiving none, calculating how far afield you may be. 

“Just the two of you?” the man asks, as he scribbles something on his clipboard. One of his lieutenants looms guarding the door at the top of the stairs. They shoot each other knowing glances.

You nod obediently. You’ve seen this thing in movies, where the brave but witless hero goes against all good judgment to meet with the rival crime boss to see about making a deal to end all the death.

But this isn’t the movies and there’s no one you can negotiate with. In fact, your presence here may be making things worse. You tell yourself you’ve been careful, observant, but you never know.

“OK, guys, my colleague here will show you to your table,” the man with the clipboard says amicably. “Please keep your masks on until you’re seated and thank you so much for choosing to dine with us today. We really appreciate your support!”

The tone, so friendly and welcoming, is enough to give you whiplash, but you’ve done it a couple of times now at a few different places and it gets less jarring each time.

You enter and hope that it's the right thing to do.

New rules to dine by

Before COVID-19, my job as the restaurant critic for the Free Press involved eating out some 200 times a year and writing about the more interesting experiences, good or bad, that came out of the practice.

After the virus hit Michigan, the nature of my role changed a bit and I’ve been dedicated almost entirely to straight news reporting, covering how the crisis is affecting the state’s hospitality industry. (It’s been devastating.)

So when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced bars and restaurants Up North could begin serving on-premise diners for the first time in months, I immediately booked a reporting trip to the Traverse City region. 

I found a town uneasy about the influx of tourists from downstate during the busy Memorial Day holiday.

But that doesn’t mean that hospitality went out the window.

More:Northern Michigan bar reopens at midnight: What it was like inside

More:Traverse City business owners uneasy as tourists come to town

Friday night’s dinner offered the best example of how this new kind of service without a visible smile can still offer a life-affirming experience.

On May 18, when the governor announced her executive order allowing 32 counties in northern Michigan to begin reopening bars, restaurants and retail shops just four days later, one of my first calls was to Amanda Danielson, co-owner of Trattoria Stella, an upscale Italian restaurant on the ground floor of a converted historic hospital. The 16-year-old business is a beacon of the area’s culinary scene. 

Along with being one of the best restaurants in the state, Stella was also one of the few fine dining establishments in town that was planning to open its dining room for the weekend (by phone reservation only). I snagged a table for two just before 8 p.m. Friday.

Joann Anderson and her husband Jim enjoy their food at Trattoria Stella in Traverse City on May 22, 2020. The Andersons are frequent customers at the restaurant.

I arrived with my date two minutes early. As required, we wore our masks to enter the building and were first greeted by a sign outlining the new rules of the house — one of the most commonly adopted standard operating procedures at virtually every business in town.

Beyond the sign, a masked hostess behind a newly installed plexiglass panel welcomed us and directed us to wait a few feet over until someone could take us to our table.

They’d been spacing out the few reservations that night in 15-minute increments and the people behind us were late to theirs, leading to an unexpected shuffle near the door. Other than this minor snafu, Danielson said, guests had been respectful and compliant all night. She’d been worried that these new procedures would be perceived as too burdensome and interfere with the top-notch service experience Stella is known for, but that didn’t seem to be the case. And it wasn't for us, either.

Stella’s once-bustling bar area and adjacent rooms were empty, mostly free of tables and the warmth of human bodies, save for a station redesigned for the restaurant’s newly enacted curbside carryout program. Two adjacent dining rooms were full of stacked tables and chairs and other relics of a bustling, pre-COVID restaurant.

Another masked employee guided us to our table in an area the restaurant calls the Arches, which is essentially a long white-brick hallway of small individual alcoves, perfect for the natural separation between parties. This is all they’d be seating for now, less than a third of normal capacity.

Karin Chung, center, toasts to her son Walker Chung, left, daughter Jami Chung and Mac Chung, all of Traverse City, at Trattoria Stella in Traverse City on May 22, 2020.

The white cloth atop our table was covered in brown butcher paper. Though many of the more casual restaurants have opted for single-use plasticware and food served in carryout containers, Stella provided real silverware and everything was plated on normal dishes. Underneath our place setting was a paper bag with a hand-written note on it encouraging you to store your mask inside and forget about it for a little while — a thoughtful detail I only encountered here.

Our server Craig dropped the water carafe on the table using a cloth napkin to avoid touching it with his hands. Behind his bright red face mask, he asked us to kindly pour our own water, explaining he'd be limiting his touch. (That’s an antithetical notion for the restaurant business, which refers to every interaction at the table as “touching” it; the more “touches,” the more attentive the service usually.)

We ordered a few courses from the single-use paper menus and from there the night played out remarkably close to what dinner would’ve been like before COVID-19 changed everything.

We enjoyed bruschetta made from local asparagus and creamy ricotta, a dish of housemade burrata and charred tomato vinaigrette so sweet it mimicked strawberries and cream, fettuccine with morels and saffron rice with seared scallops and tomatoes. For the first time in two-and-a-half months, somebody else made me a cocktail. The quaint normalcy of that simple exchange nearly brought me to tears.

At the table, Craig’s face mask and the black gloves he’d donned for the rest of our meal were frequent reminders of the times we live in, but even those became less noticeable as the dinner wore on and the wine kicked in.

Craig Clerk, a server at Trattoria Stella, takes orders from customers at the restaurant in Traverse City on May 22, 2020.

Out of practice, we’d ordered far too much and had the many leftovers packed up, to be enjoyed at the hotel tomorrow.

We paid our bill, tipped generously and donned our masks to leave, ending the suspension of disbelief that had allowed us to enjoy ourselves for 90 minutes. 

We walked out into the dusky late-spring air hoping we’d made the right decision, but not knowing for sure. 

Send your dining tips to Free Press Restaurant Critic Mark Kurlyandchik at 313-222-5026 Follow him on Twitter @MKurlyandchik and Instagram @curlyhandshake. Read more restaurant news and reviews and sign up for our Food and Dining newsletter.