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It's still service with a smile, but from behind a mask

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?

Pauly Saal, one of Berlin's most-garlanded restaurants, was minutes from reopening. The staff members were glad to be back after a two-month shutdown - "a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel", said one waiter, Dennis Rohde.

But they were also anxious: the authorities' sudden decision to allow restaurants to reopen had left them with only 24 hours to perfect a radical remoulding 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 10pm, customers could be seated as early as 5pm.

"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 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 he 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, he 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 5pm approached, 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, 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 Italian waiter Carlo Alberto Bartolini. His voice was muffled but sounded almost relieved. "The pleasure," Mr Aldag said, "is mine."

Inside, 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," he said. "It's strange. But we'll get used to it."

In the kitchen, the masks were also frustrating the chefs. "Horrible!" Gieselmann said. The masks made the kitchen feel even hotter than usual. More important, they also stopped the chefs from taste-testing the food so frequently.

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, Fröhling said.

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 8pm, nearly 30 diners had crossed the threshold - more than some of the staff had expected.

For the staff, it was a relief that so many people had showed up and enjoyed themselves. 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." NYTIMES

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