Not unlike just about everyone else in the COVID-19 world, Joan and Mark Gerhart of Rantoul were antsy, eager to change their routine and anxious to see the world outside the 61866 ZIP code.
“Last night, I told her we’ve got to go out tomorrow and get out to eat,” recounted Mark, who was speaking literally.
“And he promised me a cloth tablecloth,” Joan said.
That’s a tall order in a world where even the finest restaurants have nothing but curbside pickup and carry-out service.
That’s where good old American ingenuity and resolve — like Bluto’s inspiring speech in “Animal House”: “Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no” — kicked in.
“I said, ‘Let’s go to Bunny’s,’” Mark recalled. “We had our bistro set up at home and I said we can take it with us and sit in the parking lot and just sit there and enjoy the beautiful night.”
Thus was born a perfectly safe, legal and unusual way to dine al fresco amid a pandemic.
It ain’t Paris, but then again, Paris — where the cafes, bars and restaurants are still closed — ain’t Paris, either.
“We needed to get away. We needed to get out. And that’s what we did,” Mark said.
That Friday night about a month ago, they carefully put their little bistro table and chairs in the van, drove to downtown Urbana and scouted the perfect outdoor dining location in a parking lot across Water Street from Bunny’s.
Joan brought the accessories.
“We’ve got extra napkins and candles and the cloth tablecloth,” she said.
“And we brought some music to add to the mood,” Mark said.
No one else was in the lot that night — and Bunny’s co-owner Ben Manns said he doesn’t know of anyone else who tried it since — but they weren’t quite alone.
He ran into his brother-in-law picking up dinner at Bunny’s along with several other friends.
“There are a lot of folks coming by here, laughing and waving at us,” Joan said.
Mark called in their orders of cod and walleye, went inside to pick them up and carried them out about 50 yards to the table.
“When we were finished,” Joan said, “we called them up and told them that it was delicious and that table 10 offered up their congratulations on the excellent service and the food.”
Since then, they’ve made up a little tag that says “Table 10” and brought it with them to other al fresco dining experiences at Olive Garden, Manzella’s Italian Patio, Bunny’s (again) and the Philo Tavern.
“We have plans to do it at other places,” Mark said. “We’re starting to think that we want to go out and support whoever we can.”
“And I’m tired of cooking,” Joan joked.
“People can’t gather any place like they used to do. But we can still come out and do this. It works out good for us,” Mark said.
The weather was so good that first night they dined in the fresh, spring air that they watched the sun drop over the buildings in downtown Urbana, turned up the music and danced in that isolated parking lot. Their dining experience lasted more than two hours.
They’ve had to dodge rain showers on other nights but are looking forward to better weather for their excursions around East Central Illinois in May.
“Get your table and come and join us. Just keep at least 6 feet apart,” Joan said.
She’s serious about staying safe and healthy while enjoying outdoor dining.
“You know what? I am very, very susceptible to this virus. Very. I’ve got everything on this list,” she said, recounting her battles with lupus, heart disease and lung disorders. “But I’ve also got to have a sense of humor and just go and get out and do whatever I can.
“The fresh air is nice.”