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Last Thursday afternoon — when most of the country was still primarily focused on the global pandemic rather than the widespread protests and riots to come — it felt like the right time to hit State Street for my first visit in 11 weeks and see how the restaurants were embracing the city’s closure of the main drag to cars.
I’d heard that the previous weekend’s Memorial Day crowds were a bit too large and unmasked for comfort, perhaps too jubilantly celebrating the cracking open of the state’s shelter-in-place orders. But I’d also appreciated a breath of fresh commerce blowing into Santa Barbara’s stagnant sales, knowing how desperately so many establishments, and their many employees, were clinging to survival.
This being my first time out on the town in more than two months, I was quickly hit with a few unexpected questions: What do I even wear when I go downtown? Should my mask match my outfit? And should I shave my quarantine mustache? The answers, in order, were: who cares?, who cares?, and of course not. The fourth question of where to park was immediately apparent: The city lots are wide open and free right now.
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I parked at the Chapala-Victoria lot, said a brief hello to Mitchell Sjerven and crew at bouchon — who were in T-shirts and shorts rather than usual suit and tie — and began walking down State Street. It was only 4 p.m., and it was almost entirely empty, save for some masked employees waiting outside the Good Lion and bicyclists zipping down the empty asphalt. I started to wonder whether my experimental outing was even going to make sense at all but kept walking down the blocks.
I had my mask around my neck, but wasn’t even within 15 feet of almost anyone, so it didn’t seem worthy of wearing. Others were more diligent in their masking, and some didn’t have them at all. There were a few folks enjoying Draughtsmen pints and Buena Onda empanadas outside of Mosaic Locale and a healthy happy-hour crowd outside of Chase Bar & Grill, spread up and down the sidewalk.
By the time I’d made it past Carrillo, our paper’s photographer told me he was up the street a bit, so I turned back and we met at Satellite S.B., where a deejay spun in the foyer for the sidewalk tables. The rules were simple: Order one person at a time with masks at the cashier table, and then take your food and drinks, which came in to-go boxes and cups, to your table, where you could remove your mask and dive in. I hoped for a contactless payment solution, but I did the traditional hand-the-card-over and sign-the-check routine, followed by helping myself to the sanitizer on the table.
After crudite, olives, and spritzes, we moved down State Street again, which was picking up some steam by 5:15 p.m. Once we hit the 500 block, a more jubilant vibe emerged. The red-and-white-checkered tablecloths outside of Joe’s Café were packed, and well spaced, while the beer lovers at Institution Ale had taken over every available table, again all distantly spaced and spilling into the State Street blacktop, where a laundry list of new rules were on a sandwich board at the entrance.
Holdren’s seemed most inviting, with a table right in front. We checked in with owner Clay Holdren, who was working the receptionist lectern with his mask, wore our masks to our seats in the street, and sat down. Clay presented a laminated sheet with QR codes, which we scanned with our iPhones and downloaded the food and drink menus. Easy and completely contactless.
Over margaritas, calamari, tuna tartare, and a massive wedge salad — brought out by a server in gloves — I relished in not having to make my own dinner for one of the first times in months, as a guitarist jammed classic rock hits just outside of the fence. When I had to hit the head, another server ran to the back, past all of the packed up and empty indoor tables, to see if the bathrooms were open. It was otherwise normal.
Despite the contactless ordering, the paying was traditional: bill in book, card taken, common pen offered, although I had my own pen, so I used that. It wasn’t a big deal, but if this goes on much longer, I expect to see an evolved payment method that eliminates most contact, whether that’s Apple Pay or Square or something altogether new.
I won’t lie — the whole thing was by no means “normal,” and, like everyone else, I’d prefer a world where masks and sanitizer and suspicion about where everyone around you has been recently was not the status quo. But as the 6 p.m. sunlight streamed onto our table on the edge of State Street, our chairs atop the white lines of a former bike lane, it cast a golden warmth that cut pleasantly into the light ocean breeze.
It had been years since I lingered on that block for much more than a quick beer or speedy walk elsewhere, and there was something very Santa Barbara about it all. Surrounded by smiling people who were doing whatever they could to survive in this expensive yet extraordinary town, I was reminded ever so briefly of why I settled here a quarter-century ago. I didn’t even order a steak, but I’d felt satisfied with my outing, which seemed safe and reassuring as I walked back up the street to my truck, happy to see growing crowds at Benchmark, Sama Sama, and Trattoria Mollie’s.
When I passed Arigato, a couple was picking up their order, and I heard their brief exchange. “Good to see you,” said the receptionist, to which the customer replied, “We’re doing the best we can, I guess.” I couldn’t help but nod.