Podcast #178 — What Remains from Pandemic Times; Best Restaurant and Bars

I Feel Safer Already

Last month’s travel got me wondering what travel changes are going to stick after the COVID pandemic begins to recede. With all the restaurant and bar closures caused by COVID lockdowns, I’m updating my recommendations list based on recent travels. And I’m way overthinking our first post-lockdown international trip. All this and more – click here to download the podcast file, go up to the Subscribe section in the top menu bar to subscribe on your favorite site, or listen right here by clicking on the arrow on the player.

Here is the transcript of TravelCommons podcast #178:

Since The Last Episode

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you from the TravelCommons studio in Chicago, Illinois after a much lighter travel schedule than before the last episode. The day after posting the July episode, Irene and I got back in the car (because those 12-hour drives to and from the East Coast just weren’t enough for me), but this time heading north, as I mentioned at the end of the last episode, to Traverse City, MI to do Paddle for Pints with some friends; it’s a taproom crawl, but in kayaks instead of on streets. It’s a lot of fun. There’s something about physical exertion while drinking that seems to justify the next beer. 
  • Now, anyone who’s driven any distance through the Midwest knows there’s only two seasons here — winter and construction season — and we didn’t get too far outside of Chicago on I-90 before a merge down to single lane traffic ground traffic to a crawl and I started refreshing Waze and Google Maps looking for alternatives. I’ve said in past episodes that, even though Google owns both, my experience is they can recommend different routes, especially in high-traffic, fast-changing situations. To me, Waze feels a little “twitchier”; it’ll twist you down a half-dozen random side streets to save 30 seconds while Google Maps guesses you’re willing to suck it up for a couple more minutes in exchange for a simpler route. And that’s exactly what happened to us in northwest Indiana which leaves me trying to figure out which route to take. I tweeted out later (actually while on a snack break in a taproom in Grand Rapids) “ I really hate it when Google Maps and Waze fight” to which the Waze social media crew replied “We like to think of it more as a disagreement”. Nicely done. And then Jim McDonough, a long-time TravelCommons listener, added “Apple Maps breaks the tie?”  Good idea, but I was having enough fun swiping between two maps; adding a third would’ve put me in the ditch for sure. I mostly used Waze, but skipped the recommended routing through side streets in Gary, Indiana. The risk-reward trade-off on that just didn’t feel worth it.
  • I was supposed to head out to the Bay Area last week on business, going to a plant on the east side of the Bay for a big team meeting. But it got re-vectored at the last minute from California back to Chicago because that Bay Area country had reinstated indoor mask mandates. Nobody questioned the move. With everyone on the team fully vaccinated months ago, we’d all happily gotten used to meeting with each other like it’s 2019 again and really didn’t want to go back to 8 hours of masks, muffled voices, and trying to read non-verbal cues from the nose up. As it was, we just made it under the wire — our meeting was Wednesday and Thursday, and then on Friday, Chicago’s indoor mask mandate went into effect. It’s sorta peak Chicago that the city collected the revenue off of 385,000 mostly maskless Lollapalooza attendees before dropping the boom on those of us who actually live in the city.
  • Bridge Music — Astral Travel by Astral (c) copyright 2013 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/Astral/44282

Following Up

  • One of the reasons it takes me so long to do an episode is I lack the discipline to bail out when I get caught in a click spiral. This time it was about the United Airlines flight that was evacuated because a teenager decided to troll fellow passengers by AirDropping them a picture of an Airsoft gun. For the non-iPhone users out there, AirDrop lets iPhones and Macs easily share stuff — pictures, videos, web links — wirelessly with others nearby. It’s been around for about 10 years and pretty quickly people figured out they could drop random/interesting pictures onto nearby strangers who had set their phones wide-open. I’ve seen this happen and it can be pretty funny, watching someone suddenly start looking around in a bar or a train, wondering who’d AirDropped them a picture. But what’s funny or, at worst, annoying in a bar is easily interpreted as a safety threat 10 years on from 9/11. They pulled everyone off for rescreening, searched the plane, and then left three hours later, leaving the teen behind in SFO. Understandable, I thought, if maybe a slight overreaction — until I got to maybe the 5th page of Google search results where I clicked through to not-yet- another rehash of the United incident, but something different — a story about an AirDropped message on a Delta flight. It said “A plane-jacking will happen soon, 2 hours and 37 minutes it will start in the front on aisle 6.” That flight too was evacuated, but this time they didn’t find the sender. Maybe airlines’ safety demos need to show iPhone users how to set their AirDrop to “Receiving Off”.
  • Irene and I continue to push on with plans for our first post-lockdown international trip, to Italy for a bike tour through Puglia. The whole Delta variant thing adds to the uncertainty. I talked in episode #175 about sorting through trip insurance and figuring out what credit card to use for the tour. Now booking hotels before and after the tour, we’re choosing to pay 10-15 euros more a night for cancellable rates, kind of a DIY trip insurance. Booking our flights into Bari, where the tour starts, I’ve also felt the need to be a bit more thoughtful. Airline schedules seem to be a bit more variable than usual. Last week, American sent me a note to let me know our November LHR-ORD flight has moved up 5:15pm to 10:35am. I understand that; air traffic is not following predictable patterns and they’re trying to keep up. For that direct flight home from London, it’s not a problem. But when we’re having to make a connection to a city with not-frequent service, it’s a different matter. The first thing I did was X out anything with more than 1 stop; it’ll be hard enough keeping 2 flights aligned let alone 3. Then I focused on the big European hubs — Heathrow, Frankfurt, DeGaulle — skipping connections at smaller places like Munich, Zurich. Finally, I look for connection times around 3 hours; what I thought would be a “Goldilocks” connection — not too short that any hiccup on the inbound flight would cause a problem, but not too long that we’d be having to sit in the airport all day wearing a mask or would have to track COVID protocols in yet another country because of an overnight connection. All that being said, we’re booked on Air France with a 2 hr, 50 minute connection in DeGaulle. But I don’t have any SkyTeam status, which causes me a bit of a worry — maybe we get caught in a long non-status security line. So I did some DIY trip insurance on the flight, burning an extra bit of my pile of American Express Membership miles for a ride in business class (cancellable, of course) to make up for my non-status status. You could say I’ve gone way down a rabbit hole overthinking this one and I wouldn’t really argue with you. But then again, it’s the first international trip in 2 years that I’ve been able to plan. So it’s kinda like an only child, getting way too much their parent’s attention. 
  • I was digging through my travel card wallet for my Global Entry card to find my Known Traveler number to put on the Air France reservation and came across a handful of Southwest drink coupons that are about to hit their expiration date. Southwest says expiring drink coupons are good through the end of this year. But Southwest suspended alcohol sales a few months back, and rightly so after a passenger assaulted a flight attendant, saying the booze won’t return until the federal mask mandate ends. But the TSA just extended that until January, past the coupons’ extended expiration date. And really, I don’t see the TSA letting up on in-flight masks anytime soon, so is Southwest going to be the first dry airline?
  • I mentor start-up founders at a tech incubator in Chicago. A few months ago, one of my sessions was with a bionic implant start-up. Implant the chip and the back of your hand becomes a contactless card; get into your office or pay at Starbucks with the tap of your hand. Another reminder, if a bit, say, unsettling (icky?), of the move to a cashless society. I talked about it back in episode #136 in 2017, about being maybe the last generation of cash payers, that my younger traveling colleagues rarely carried cash; they paid for everything with a card. And then, the pandemic massively accelerated it. Everything went contactless; nobody wanted to handle your cash. Last year, in episode #165, I noticed I had the same $200 of 20’s in my wallet in June that I’d taken out of an ATM right before the March lockdown. Last month in New York, the coffee joint across from our hotel was card-only and the same for the ice cream shop around the corner from our place in Chicago. Restaurants that use the Toast point-of-sale system print out a QR code at the bottom of your receipt, letting you pay and walk away. The country of Sweden thinks they’ll be completely cashless in 2 years. But I’m seeing a little reversion to the mean post-lockdown. I stopped off at a bar during a Saturday bike ride for a rehydration break. I asked the bartender if she took cash. “Yup,” she said, “Never stopped. It spends just like everything else.” It felt good to put a 20 on the bar, order beers, and see her take cash from the pile just like in 2019. It’s also that inflation is making it tougher for small places to eat the 2.5-3% card fees. The little Mexican place across the street from work where I’ll grab carne asada tacos for lunch now tacks on that fee for card users. They’re happy when I pull out cash, though last week I got 80 cents back in nickels. I guess the cashless thing has now caused a shortage of quarters. 
  • And if you have any travel stories, questions, comments, tips, rants – the voice of the traveler, send ’em along to comments@travelcommons.com — you can send a Twitter message to mpeacock, post your thoughts on the TravelCommons’ Facebook page or the Instagram account at travelcommons — or you can post comments on the web site at TravelCommons.com.
  • Bridge Music — Emma by Doxent Zsigmond (c) copyright 2015 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/doxent/50905 Ft: Martijn de Boer

What Will Remain from These Pandemic Times?

  • In past episodes, I’ve been pretty skeptical about forecasts of permanent changes to the travel industry, or society in general, from  the pandemic. I have enough grey hair to remember commentators using the same “everything has changed” and “this is the new normal” language 13 years ago after the 2008 Great Recession, yet somehow we ended up back to maybe within 90% of  2007, the pre-recession starting point. Reversion to the mean is a strong force.
  • Unless it’s countered by a stronger force — like saving money — which is why I think the odds-on favorites for pandemic changes made permanent are what we’ve seen at hotels and restaurants. Checking into the Hilton in Midtown Manhattan last month, the front desk guy told us that they weren’t doing daily housekeeping; we could either schedule housekeeping now or call them when we wanted it. Pre-pandemic, Starwood and then Marriott would offer you points for skipping housekeeping — Go Green they called it. They pitched it as eco-friendly, but it really was all about saving labor costs. But the Hilton didn’t offer me any points. The week before, Hilton announced their new policy of on-request housekeeping across all of their brands; the first major chain to cement what had been an ad hoc pandemic response into a new chain-wide policy. The press release talked about “guest comfort”, but behind the PR flacks, it’s all about cost savings. I expect to see Marriott and others follow soon. I do have to give props to the housekeeping staff at that Hilton, though. When, after 3 days, I did call for a room cleaning, they were there in 5 minutes. 
  • A bigger loss for me is the breakfast buffet. My usual pre-pandemic routine was to work out and then take a quick pass through the concierge lounge for breakfast. Hotels must’ve found their ad hoc grab-n-go breakfast sacks cheaper because that too feels like it’s going to be the new normal. Way back in episode #113, in January 2015, I scoffed at a bartender in MSP who reached over to punch my food order into the iPad mounted in front of me. Now, we aim our own smartphones at QR codes and order our own meals — without any help — again, saving labor costs. 
  • Airlines started reverting to the mean at the end of last year when they dropped capacity restrictions and put butts in the middle seats again — just as traffic began to recover. If you haven’t been on a flight this year, you’d think nothing happened — well, except everyone wearing masks and the missing Bloody Mary eye openers on the morning Southwest flights to Vegas. Some folks are predicting the death of cancellation fees, but I don’t buy it. In 2019, United made $625 million in change and cancellation fees; ten of the largest U.S. carriers made $2.84 billion. That’s too big of a hole to leave unfilled. And they’re already creeping back in. Most Basic Economy seats are back to non-changeable/non-refundable. Maybe not this year, but if traffic holds up, I’d expect to see some airlines quietly not extend their fee waiver deadlines.
  • Private company behaviors are pretty straight-forward to forecast — just follow the money. It’s the government regs that are uncertain — how long do the mask mandates and COVID testing international entry rules stay around? Government rules only seem to ratchet up — it’s been 15 years since the TSA had us take our shoes off and dump our water bottles at security checkpoints and other than letting people bring on larger bottles of hand sanitizer, no one thinks the TSA is going to change those rules anytime soon. There’s no incentive.
  • Bridge Music — Melt Away by Kara Square (c) copyright 2014 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://ccmixter.org/files/mindmapthat/46605

The Best Places I’ve Ate and Drank At In 2021… So Far

  • I talk a lot about food and beer in this podcast — as proven by the direct links to those categories in the top menu on the TravelCommons website. Back in episode #168 last fall, I said that, for me, food is one of the last hold-outs to global e-commerce and social media. 10-20 year ago, it was fun to go shopping and bring something unique back home. But now, there’s not much that you can’t find easier (and often cheaper) on Amazon or Taobao or Rakuten. And don’t even get me started on Instagram — if people aren’t in a 100-person queue to get their own personal shot of the Delicate Arch in Moab, UT then they’re queuing for made-for-Instagram-selfie murals like the WhatLiftsYou wings in Nashville’s Gulch neighborhood.  But food — you can post all the pictures you want of it, but you can’t post that sense memory of eating a dozen fresh oysters on a breakwater in Brittany, having a bowl of pho for breakfast in Saigon, or a 1am fresh-off-the-grill char polish that’s been dragged through the garden at a Chicago hot dog stand. 
  • And so, over the years, I’ve talked about restaurants, bars, taprooms that I’ve enjoyed and posted links to them on the website in show notes or in blog posts. But reading articles about the number of places that’ve closed since March 2020 — some say 10% of all restaurants in the US, almost 20% in Chicago — I figure it’ll take travel guide books and blogs a while to catch up with all the changes. It kinda hit me when a college friend pinged our group text for Nashville recommendations. I’ve been going there a couple of times a year for the past 5 years, but when I started going through my list of places, it struck me how many of them had closed. I had to re-curate my recommendations. I figured a good start on that would be to post a list of the best places I’ve ate and drank at during my 2021 travels on the TravelCommons website.
  • Now, fair warning, this is a very idiosyncratic list; it’s the best places I ate and drank at in, say, New York City in May and July. The New York list is pretty Midtown/Murray Hill-centric because that’s where we were staying and that’s where Claire was looking for flats. I walked into Ted’s Corner Tavern because it’s around the corner from Claire’s new place; it made the list because it’s what I think a great neighborhood bar should be — good-sized bar with friendly bartenders who aren’t too busy to chat with you, the right volume level (lively, but not so loud that you have to shout across the table), and, of course, 30 taps and a well-curated beer list.
  • I’ve tried to make my list a well-curated one.  I don’t mention restaurants or taprooms that I thought were fine — the 3 or 3½-star places. It’s a list of places that stuck out in my mind for one reason or another, and would make me go out of my way to recommend them to, say, a college friend. This played out in a funny way on my Portland, Maine recommendations. I recommend Bob’s Clam Hut in Kittery for fried clams and Island Creek Oyster’s place in the East End/Munjoy Hill neighborhood for local oysters, but have no specific recommendation for a lobster roll place. It’s not for lack of trying; we had a lobster roll whenever we saw it on a menu, which wasn’t a cheap exercise since they were about $25 a pop. They were all good — we didn’t have a bad lobster roll anywhere. But after all that, there’s no one place I could point to and say “Go there for a lobster roll.”  I just say “Order one if you see it. It’ll probably be good no matter where you are”. 
  • Another oddity of the list — no Chicago places. Irene and I talked about this a bit. Between favorite places closing and cooking at home a lot more during the lockdowns and the strict mask mandate (which in Chicago was worded kinda like the airplane mandate — wear your mask at all times unless you were actively eating or drinking), we haven’t been anywhere that’s really stuck out. Well, except maybe for the Nancy’s Pizza a couple of blocks from the TravelCommons studios. They do a great pepperoni, spinach, and fresh tomato pan pizza. That’ll definitely make the list.
  • Because the list is a work-in-progress; I posted the first edition on the website last week with sections on Tucson, San Diego, Nashville, New York, and Portland. You’ll find a link in the episode description in your podcast app — if it supports HTML descriptions. I’ll be adding places through the rest of the year. There will be at least a couple of Chicago places (in addition to Nancy’s) on the list. I’m sure we’ll find some places in Puglia to add; and I’m positive I’ll find some UK taprooms that’ll make the cut since Rob Cheshire of This Week in Craft Beer has offered me a personal tour of his favorites.
  • When I’ve added a new section or think there’s enough new stuff to justify people taking a fresh look, I’ll put a new date on it so it goes back to the top of the Food and the Beer sections of the website, and I’ll post it on Facebook and Twitter. And if you end up hitting one of these places, shoot me a note and let me know if I got it right.

Closing

  • Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #178
  • I hope you all enjoyed the show and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
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