Patrick Kingsley, an international correspondent, and Laetitia Vancon, a photojournalist, are driving more than 3,700 miles to explore the reopening of the European continent after coronavirus lockdowns. Read their first dispatch here.
BERLIN — Clad in masks, the waiters were nervous. How would the diners see their smiles?
The sommelier wondered: How would he smell the wine?
The head chef worried: How ready was the new menu? Was the cold pea soup too salty? The ice cream too sweet?
But they were anxious as well as excited. The authorities’ sudden decision to allow restaurants to reopen had left them with only 24 hours to perfect a radical remolding of their working practice.
And amid a profound economic crisis, there was also a more existential question: With no tourists in the city, was there still a market for Michelin-starred gastronomy?
Like all German restaurants, Pauly Saal was abruptly ordered to close in March. After an easing of restrictions in Germany, it was reopening in a strange, changed world — a barometer for the extent to which fine dining can survive during a pandemic.
The staff were all wearing gloves and masks. The famous dining hall — a former gymnasium in what was once a Jewish girls’ school — looked the same, but the diners were to be spread at intervals throughout its velveteen green seats.
To avoid touching shared surfaces, they could now read the menu on their phones. And since by law restaurants must now shut by 10 p.m., customers could be seated as early as 5 p.m.
“It’s a completely different style,” said the restaurant’s longest-serving waiter, Michael Winterstein, who joined at its founding in 2012.
“And we have to make that work,” added Mr. Winterstein, once a professional composer, “without it looking like a medical station in a hospital.”
The head chef, Dirk Gieselmann, projected calm, but his thoughts were darting around.
It was winter when Mr. Gieselmann had shut the kitchen, still the season for truffles, chard and parsnips. He missed the wild garlic season; that came and went during the lockdown.
Now he was reopening during the asparagus, strawberry and rhubarb harvests. And this called for a completely new menu.
In ordinary times, Mr. Gieselmann might have had two weeks to hone it. But the pandemic had left just a single day for his chefs to practice preparing the new dishes and for the waiters to rehearse serving them.
As 5 p.m. approached, Mr. Gieselmann was still mulling the vichyssoise and fretting that the elderflower ice cream hadn’t had long enough to set.
Then the first guests arrived.
Among the first was Stefan Aldag, a 56-year-old lawyer. Before the lockdown began, Mr. Aldag usually ate twice a month at Pauly Saal. Here he was again, dining alone at a table in the courtyard outside, as if nothing had changed except the season.
“It is a pleasure to see you again,” said an Italian waiter, Carlo Alberto Bartolini. His voice was muffled, but sounded almost relieved.
“The pleasure,” Mr. Aldag said, “is mine.”
Inside, the sommelier, Paul Valentin Fröhling, was practicing the strange art of smelling and sipping wines while wearing a mask.
Taking care to touch only the back of the fabric, he eased his mask briefly above his nose, allowing him to sniff the top of the bottle unimpeded. But sipping was harder. He had to tilt his head backward to avoid nudging the mask with his tasting glass.
“It’s not comfortable,” Mr. Fröhling said. “It’s strange. But we’ll get used to it.”
In the kitchen, the masks were also frustrating the chefs.
“Horrible!” said Mr. Gieselmann.
The masks made the kitchen feel even hotter than usual. More important, they also stopped the chefs from taste-testing the food so frequently.
If certain dishes were a bit too salty, Mr. Gieselmann joked, “you know why.” Sometimes the chefs took their masks off; by law, only the waiters had to wear them constantly.
But gradually, as the light started to fade, and diners moved from the courtyard to the old gym, the restaurant settled into its rhythm.
The masks made things fiddly and fraught, but the workers were learning to smile with their eyes, Mr. Fröhling said.
The lockdown had been long and unsettling. Like many businesses, the restaurant had been kept afloat through a government support scheme.
The staff had been paid a reduced salary, part of which was funded by the government. To make up the shortfall, one had worked on a farm, another in an ice-cream parlor.
A third spent it heartbroken, after breaking up with his partner. Some had wondered if the restaurant would ever reopen.
But suddenly, they were back.
“We’re alive!” said Mr. Winterstein, breezing past with a bowl of bouillabaisse.
Better still, the tables were filling fast. A group of disc jockeys and music promoters gathered for their first post-lockdown meal together. The director of a nearby art gallery sat two tables down. Beyond him was a former Hungarian politician.
By 8 p.m., nearly 30 diners had crossed the threshold — more than some of the staff had expected.
And most of the guests seemed delighted to be there.
“Marvelous,” said Mr. Aldag, the loyal patron.
The lockdown had been “really difficult to survive,” he said. “Of course, there were many delivery companies but it’s not the same, sitting on your sofa and having this ugly pizza.”
“Basically, it’s beautiful,” said Florian Hauss, one of the music promoters. “A release.”
Amir Sinai, an Israeli teacher dining with his husband, admitted he missed aspects of the lockdown. Isolation had been “my dream,” Mr. Sinai said. “It gives me space and time.”
But the lockdown had also cost him a holiday in Italy, so the chance to dine out again was a form of consolation, he said.
“This is our travel.”
By 10 p.m., the staff were similarly satisfied. Behind the kitchen door, once all the guests had left, there were several weary smiles.
In the context of a pandemic, a restaurant might conceivably end up the victim of its own success. If too few people go out to eat, a business like Pauly Saal will suffer. But too many, and it might lead to a second lockdown.
On this night, though, it was not a time to split hairs. It was simply a relief that so many people had showed up and enjoyed themselves.
Mr. Rohde, the waiter, had a sore back, tired by his first shift in two months.
“But it hurts in a good way,” he said, his mask now dangling from one ear. “I feel I’m back again.”