“We have decided to pause service at Little Pearl for 4 weeks starting May 10th in preparation for ‘Cicada Season,’ ” read an email from the restaurant. “As we tried to get as creative as possible to combat them this year, we know in good faith that a single 100 decibel cicada will ruin anyone’s dinner experience, a ‘tsunami’ of them will be impossible to control.” The restaurant offered to reschedule, refund the payment Wilkins had already made, or move the reservation down the street to sister restaurant Rose’s Luxury.
Wilkins was disappointed, he says, but sympathetic to Little Pearl. He’s fascinated by the much-discussed arrival of Brood X, and says he wouldn’t have minded dining in their company. “I think it’s cool,” he says. “But I can understand that if a restaurant wants to offer a particular experience, then having trillions of insects screaming at you probably disrupts that.”
Few other restaurants in the Washington area — which is considered to be the epicenter of the every-17-years invasion of cicadas that is soon to take place across 15 states — are taking the same approach as Little Pearl. Many veteran restaurateurs, those who were around the last time the insects made their appearance, are more nonchalant about the impending arrival.
“Our experience was that we weren’t really affected at all,” says Christianne Ricchi, the owner of downtown Italian restaurant i Ricchi, whose large “piazza” offers outdoor seating. “We figure it will be about the same.”
At restaurants farther from downtown, more trees offer the cicadas a place to land — and mate — so are more likely to see cicada action, notes Michael Raupp, an emeritus entomology professor at the University of Maryland. Or hear it, more importantly.
Raupp says the insects’ mating songs are more likely to annoy diners than their flight patterns (and they don’t bite or sting, either). “Once they’re up in the trees, it’s all about the romance — the guys will be singing their hearts out trying to convince the ladies to be the mothers of their nymphs,” he says.
Eateries downtown or in newly developed neighborhoods such as the Wharf and Navy Yard won’t be affected, but at those in older neighborhoods with established trees and more green space, the volume could be as loud as a lawn mower, Raupp says. “It’s going to be cicada Lollapalooza,” he says. “We’re talking about teenagers that have been underground for years.”
But even at L’Auberge Chez Francois, whose location in a leafy stretch of Great Falls, Va., feels as remote from downtown sidewalks as the Alsatian countryside, no one is on high alert. Chef and owner Jacques Haeringer has no plans to close his terrace.
“We don’t recall that it was a huge problem last time around,” he says. “We will just have to see.”
A look back at The Washington Post’s coverage of the 2004 cicada invasion suggests that his recollection is correct. In an article by our colleague Fritz Hahn about restaurants anticipating the bugs, owners fretted about the prospect of guests being dive-bombed and patios turning into mass graveyards for insect carcasses.
But those Hitchcock-movie-level scenarios didn’t pan out. “The buzz over the 17-year cicadas didn’t live up to the preinvasion hype,” Hahn later wrote in a review of the year’s dining and nightlife scene.
And it turns out that the potential for buggy disaster was only part of the decision to shutter Little Pearl’s tree-shaded patio. The restaurant’s owners had wanted to pause service in anticipation of being able to welcome more diners, and saw the predicted window for the cicadas’ appearance as fortuitous timing. Now D.C. restaurants are permitted to serve guests at 25 percent capacity, but that percentage is expected to go up soon as vaccines become more widespread and covid-19 cases decline.
“Cicadas were just a part of the puzzle for us,” says Erin Philips, vice president of parent company Rose’s Restaurant Group. “If there was a time to get dining room ready for guests, this is the time to do it.”
While the cicadas do their thing — whatever it is — Little Pearl will be sprucing up the dining room, swapping out some equipment, and training staff, she says.
Even if it’s not something out of a sci-fi thriller, restaurateurs and diners alike see something almost unfair about the arrival of the cicadas after a year in which restaurants had to contend with a pandemic that shuttered many establishments for good and forced others to switch to takeout models. Patio dining has taken on an increased importance, with many restaurants turning parking lots, sidewalks and abutting streets into extra dining room. The addition of thousands of bugs into the mix feels like the creepy-crawly icing on the cake.
“This is just another thing out of their control that restaurants have to deal with on top of everything else,” Wilkins says. “I feel badly for them.”
Ricchi suggested that if diners are worried about encountering the bugs in more suburban settings, they might consider coming to eat downtown, where closed office buildings and hotels have rendered once-bustling eateries nearly vacant. “This might be the perfect opportunity to get away from Mother Nature,” she says.
Wherever they go, Raupp hopes would-be outdoor diners aren’t spooked by the bugs. Rather, he suggested, we should embrace their performance as a rare spectacle. And, hey, in these socially distanced times, at least some creatures are having fun.
His advice? Eat outside. “Think of it as dinner, a song and a show.”
Food critic Tom Sietsema contributed to this report.
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