He was finally back where he loves to be: behind a polished wooden bar. He sees his job as less about mixology and more about mixing it up with guests, jawing about golf or the Yankees or their families. “I didn’t get into this business because I like putting booze in glasses,” said the 27-year bartending veteran, who came to Old Ebbitt, the historic downtown tavern that’s one of the country’s highest-grossing restaurants, about five years ago.
Fourteen months after the coronavirus altered every aspect of modern life — including restaurant operations, which were subjected to a variety of restrictions, forcing owners to rethink their business models to survive — Washington began its first steps toward normalcy Friday as restaurants and bars were permitted to reopen at 100 percent capacity. Some owners were blindsided by the speed at which the city went from 25 percent to 100 percent, and some were confused about the new guidance. Could they seat people at the bar? (They could.) Many didn’t have the staff necessary to fill their dining rooms.
But even if they weren’t prepared for a full house, restaurant owners were eager for a steady stream of customers to walk through their doors again and bolster bottom lines that have taken a beating over the past year. Take Zenebech general manager Surafal Demissie, son of Zenebech Dessu, the most decorated Ethiopian chef in the D.C. area. He said revenue dipped as much as 85 percent during the pandemic. “There were a lot of times when I asked the landlord to take back the lease,” Demissie said.
Diners, too, were eager to shed their soft pants and slip into something more uncomfortable, ready to ditch their home-cooked meals and lukewarm delivery fare for something fresh from a professional kitchen (and for someone else to clean up). If Washingtonians were worried about the unvaccinated — less than 45 percent of the D.C. population is fully vaccinated — it wasn’t apparent. Folks, most without masks, crowded patios and “streateries” in Adams Morgan. Shenanigans Irish Pub was three deep at the bar. Abandoned scooters littered sidewalks again, as if 2020 had never happened.
A D.C. police officer, watching 18th Street from the front bumper of his vehicle, said he hadn’t seen the neighborhood so alive in months. He said he couldn’t comment to a reporter without “sending him downtown,” but he also couldn’t help but opine on the scene: “This feels good.”
Earlier that day at Old Ebbitt, that old-school downtown outpost for politicos and tourists, the staff preparing for lunch had rolled away the plexiglass dividers that had been used to section off bar seating. Now the relics of the coronavirus era were sitting in the basement waiting for a truck to haul them to a storage facility in suburban Virginia. Managers spent the previous week preparing for the comeback, ordering extra equipment — from toilet paper to the branded pens that come with your check — and testing sales systems and the air conditioning.
“It’s opening day!” crowed David Moran, the operations director for Old Ebbitt parent company Clyde’s Restaurant Group, as he greeted the lunch staff at the pre-shift meeting. There were 13 waiters and four bartenders, down from the brigade of 22 waiters and 10 bartenders that would have staffed a shift circa 2019.
They went over the mask policy: The waitstaff would be masked; customers would be asked to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which means vaccinated folks could forgo masks. Management was planning to rely on the honor system instead of asking staffers to police who’s gotten their shots and who hasn’t.
They reviewed which oysters were off the menu and the finer points of the water-carafe service, and then Moran gave them a locker-room pep talk: “People talk about the Ebbitt’s history, but the Ebbitt is all about you,” he told them as they munched bagel sandwiches and nodded with enthusiasm.
Like most other restaurants, Old Ebbitt is struggling to fully staff up, though for now managers said they’ll be able to keep pace with demand that probably won’t be at full swing, at least right away. They scaled down in anticipation of a return to full-ish capacity, shutting down carryout for a few days during the transition. One of the restaurant’s four bars would be closed. The massive, multitiered “Orca platter” was off the menu because it’s too labor-intensive to prepare and serve.
As the staffers headed to their posts, there were other portents that Washington was returning to normal. Outside, sirens and honks signaled a motorcade departing the White House, and the wailing of a museum-weary toddler felt like a familiar summer soundtrack. Other signs pointed to good business. Moran had heard that the delegation accompanying the president of South Korea was staying at the nearby Willard hotel. And Georgetown’s graduation, initially set to be virtual, was back on and being held at Nationals Park.
“I can’t wait to be slammed,” said Scott Berryman, another bartender. He had pulled up the maroon suspenders and fastened the matching bow tie that make up his old-school barkeeper’s uniform. “It’s the only way I can get into the zone.”
For now, as Old Ebbitt opened its doors, it was quiet. Nat King Cole crooned “Unforgettable” over the speakers, and waiters plunked bundles of napkin-wrapped silverware onto white tablecloths.
Across town that evening at Zenebech, there was a similar feeling of anticipation. At 69, Dessu was still working in the kitchen, prepping for what she and her son hoped would be a busy night. She was vaccinated and masked up, her hair held in place with a wispy mesh net. A James Beard Award semifinalist in 2020 for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic, Dessu has made no compromises to her menu, save for one thing: She was not, at present, making injera, the fermented flatbread on which she built her reputation.
Demand hasn’t been strong enough during the pandemic to justify the extra work. The demand wasn’t there early this evening, either, even though diners had already started to fill tables at other establishments along 18th Street. Only a handful of tables were occupied by 6:30 p.m.
It might have been a blessing in disguise. Zenebech had only two servers to handle a potential crush, and the pair would have to perform all the standard duties, plus a few extra: seat diners, take orders, prepare drinks, run food, refill water glasses, bus tables, manage takeout orders and process credit cards. Zenebech has not adopted QR codes or contactless payment systems, which means that servers Elsa Yeheyish and Meaza Alemayehu would have many interactions with maskless diners who might or might not be vaccinated.
Soon enough, diners around the city came out of hiding, as surely as the cicadas that have been underground for the past 17 years.
An hour or so into lunchtime, customers finally started to fill up Old Ebbitt’s main bar. They slid onto stools and Berryman greeted them. “Where you folks from?” he asked, offering a refrain that has probably been uttered by thousands of bartenders to thousands of guests.
Beers for a couple from New York, Gibsons and Aperol spritzes for a group that had ambled over from the Willard. A man in a suit with an ID card clipped to his belt sipped a Heineken and checked his phone.
The restaurant was soon populated with tourists carrying bags from the White House gift shop and men in Washington’s summer business uniform of seersucker suits and straw hats — perhaps not slammed as it might have been on a Friday afternoon circa 2019, but it was no ghost town.
Someone asked Berryman to snap a picture that seemed destined for Instagram.
But the most reassuring thing was the sound. Soon, a buzz of voices was wafting over the plexiglass dividers that still shielded the booths from one another and swirling over the mirrored bar. Ice rattled in a stainless-steel cocktail shaker. Pint glasses clattered as a busser stacked them on brass shelves.
Lukacs popped his head through a door behind the main bar, anxious to check in on the action. He was manning the oyster bar in the back of the restaurant, where some of his old regulars were already trickling in. It only took him a second to take in the scene, and he smiled behind his mask: “It sounds like the Old Ebbitt.”
At Zenebech, the crush arrived in the 7 o’clock hour. All four tables on the patio were occupied, and nine more inside. Two people hovered by the host stand, waiting for a table. The dining room was mostly full, save for the seats at the bar, which remained empty because Demissie didn’t realize the city’s latest guidelines allowed him to fill them. The crowd, the general manager acknowledged, gave him hope for better days ahead, even if the traffic still paled in comparison with the restaurant’s pre-pandemic peak, when a line would spill out the front door and onto the sidewalk.
Mario Campello and Sarah Brown-Campello sat at a corner table, with its view of 18th Street NW. A native of New Jersey, Campello had not visited his daughter in Washington since the beginning of the pandemic — or since he got covid-19 in February, when he was hospitalized for a couple of days with a high fever. Once he arrived, father and daughter made a beeline to Zenebech, one of their favorite restaurants, where they caught up over wine and a combo platter of stews, salads and tibs.
They are both vaccinated. They were maskless at the table and, like just about everyone around them, they looked happy to be dining out in public again. “We have a lot of confidence in the vaccine,” Campello said.
Before 9 p.m., Dessu took off for the evening, leaving her restaurant in the hands of her son and the remaining staffers, most of whom were performing multiple jobs. Demissie was expediting orders, handing finished platters to Yeheyish and Alemayehu. When not in the kitchen, Demissie collected dirty glasses and ran them back to the dishwasher. Beads of sweat collected on his forehead, just a few inches below his salt-and-pepper hairline. Yeheyish and Alemayehu still looked fresh. If you ask whether they were tired from their rounds, they would shake their heads and tell you they’d handled more-demanding dining rooms than this one.
And yet, this dining room was probably different from others they’ve worked during the pandemic. The diners were maskless in a space where social distances had disappeared. Yeheyish and Alemayehu had no idea who was vaccinated and who was not, because Zenebech, like Old Ebbitt, is relying on the honor system. But they did know about their own statuses: Neither had received a shot. “I am nervous” about the vaccination, Yeheyish said.
Yeheyish appeared less nervous about working around diners. She and Alemayehu seemed to trust in their own masks, their gloves, their cleaning protocols and their customers. Their biggest worry, it would seem, was finishing work in time to catch the last bus or train — illustrating the different realities of Washington’s grand restaurant reopening: While many are reveling in their freedom again, many are still trying to survive.
A previous version of this article said that less than 45 percent of the D.C. population is fully or partially vaccinated. While less than 45 percent is fully vaccinated, the percentage of partially vaccinated is higher, at above 50 percent. The article has been corrected.
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