After months of operating as takeout-only service, restaurants and bars in Washington and Northern Virginia can open their patios, sidewalk cafes, rooftops and other outdoor areas Friday. Montgomery and Prince George’s counties will follow on June 1.
If you're looking forward to dining and drinking somewhere other than your home this weekend, here's what you need to know.
You have to plan ahead.
In this New World of Dining Out, spontaneously deciding to go get food and drinks somewhere will not immediately be an option, at least in the District: Rules from the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration require all establishments to “implement a reservation system by phone or online and consider keeping customer logs to facilitate contact tracing by DC Health."
Some establishments will be more relaxed about this than others, though: At Farmers Fishers Bakers at Georgetown’s Washington Harbour, any walk-up customers will be encouraged to make a reservation on the spot through Open Table. Duffy’s Irish Pub on H Street NE lets customers join a first-come, first-seated wait list through its website. At Dacha’s Shaw and Navy Yard beer gardens, “We are going to maintain a virtual line,” owner Dmitri Chekaldin said . Customers can add themselves on a wait list using Resy when they’re within two miles of the front door. If there’s no wait, they’ll be taken straight to a table. If a table isn’t ready yet, “they can go to the cafe, go walk around the neighborhood, and come back when they get a text.”
While you may be used to waiting in line outside a restaurant for the next available table, expect more spots to go to the pager-style text message system: Restaurants and bars may not have the room outside to allow customers to stand in line six feet apart, as required by ABRA regulations, so they may tell customers to wait elsewhere and come back later.
Whether in Virginia or the District, it pays to have researched second and third options nearby, because seats are going to be at a premium, and many places will be full.
You’ll have to watch the clock.
Most restaurants and establishments surveyed are planning to limit seating times to two hours per person, whether a fine dining spot such as Seven Reasons, which is charging a $50 deposit per reservation, or a neighborhood beer garden such as H Street’s Biergarten Haus. “It’s a completely arbitrary number,” admits Justin Cox, the founder of Atlas Brew Works, which is offering reservations for tables outside the Ivy City brewery from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., 1 to 3 p.m., and 3 to 5 p.m. “Two hours sounds like a good window to get outside and enjoy the sunshine,” he said.
The feeling across businesses seems to be that two hours is longer than a couple might spend at dinner, but also long enough to discourage people from lingering without ordering extra drinks. But some windows will be shorter: Trade is offering 90-minute same-day reservations beginning at 6, 8 and 10 p.m. on weeknights, and 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. (The 30 minutes between reservations is to allow staff to clean and sanitize the entire space.)
Bring a mask.
Per guidelines from local governments, customers will need to wear face masks at all times when not sitting to eat or drink. In D.C., for example, if you get up to use the bathroom, you’ll need to put on a mask to walk through the restaurant and back.
Charge your smartphone, and maybe download some apps.
Many restaurants and bars are asking customers to pull up menus on their phones instead of using traditional laminated menus. At Espita, there will be no servers: Customers will use a QR code at their table to pull up a menu, order and pay, and then pick up their food from a window. Dacha and Atlas are among the businesses utilizing GoTab, which scans QR codes. (Dacha will have a limited amount of servers.)
For reservations, popular apps mentioned by restaurants and bars include Resy, Toast and Open Table.
Bars are getting creative with seating.
Recognizing that the number of socially distanced seats on most patios is a fraction of most restaurants’ overall capacity, local governments are allowing outdoor areas to expand outside their usual footprints. Arlington County passed a measure allowing establishments to apply for “Temporary Outdoor Seating Areas,” which can be up to 50 percent of the restaurant’s indoor seats. Ireland’s Four Courts regularly turns the parking lot behind the Court House pub into an overflow party area on St. Patrick’s Day, and they’re planning to do that on a regular basis to supplement the handful of seats on their Wilson Boulevard patio. General Manager Dave Cahill expects to have 75 seats, with some umbrellas and covering for rain protection.
Perhaps the most scenic table at any local brewery is at Wheatland Spring, in Waterford, Va.: Owner Bonnie Branding says that there are a dozen different tables at the farm brewery that can be reserved Friday through Sunday, including three in the grain field. “You follow a path into the barley,” she explains, where you can have views of the crops and the brewery while sipping some of the best German-style beers in the region.
On Capitol Hill, neighborhood jazz pub Mr. Henry’s is looking beyond its sidewalk patio and plans to add picnic tables and lights to “a glorified section of the parking lot” behind the building, owner Mary Quillian Helms said. She estimated the expansion includes 30 to 40 seats, “about double what we can do” once tables on their existing outdoor area are spaced six feet apart.
Meanwhile, the Mayor’s Special Events Task Group and the Department of Transportation are looking into closing streets and alleys and expanding sidewalk space to allow expansion of both restaurant seating and pedestrian access. One of those areas, though details haven’t been finalized, is Seventh Street SE across from Eastern Market, which is already closed on weekends. The Eastern, on Seventh just north of Pennsylvania Avenue, is looking forward to it: Right now, the 10-month-old wine bar can fit only three tables on its patio.
Don’t expect all your favorite places to be open yet.
You might expect restaurants to be champing at the bit to reopen ASAP, but that’s not the case. “We’re going to sit this one out, I think,” restaurateur Ian Hilton said, “and watch how things play out this weekend.” Hilton, who runs the Brixton, Marvin, El Rey and other hot spots with his brother Eric, doesn’t expect to open most of their businesses during the District’s Phase 1. “I don’t like the idea of people coming inside [a building] to go outside” to a patio or rooftop, he said. “And I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think we’re going to have a lot of rain issues. I don’t want to have to kick everyone out if it rains” instead of allowing them to come inside. Besides, he adds, “I don’t want to be the guy getting blasted on the Internet when people aren’t social distancing” in line or on the street outside. (The one exception right now is Georgetown’s Chez Billy Sud, which will open June 4 with covered, shaded patio dining; the Brighton could be next to open, as plans at the Wharf include dining on piers over the Washington Channel.)
Hilton’s reticence isn’t uncommon. Jackie Greenbaum, who runs El Chucho, Bar Charley and Little Coco’s, is keeping her restaurants carryout only for now and planning to open once they’ve figure out the best operating procedures. “It is quite a conversation,” she said. “Our places are all very tiny, and we have to evaluate each one.”
The Midlands Beer Garden in Park View is delaying reopening until “we have our staff trained, can provide safety materials on-site and our space is set up to honor social distancing.” The Garden in Del Ray announced on Facebook it would delay its open, too: “With the severity of the covid-19 pandemic still very relevant, we have decided to hold off the opening of the Garden until further notice. While the Governor has deemed NOVA ready for ‘phase 1’ we do not feel we have seen enough evidence to support this. … We will continue to monitor the situation and make a best judgment call for opening when we feel the time is right.”
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