It’s not just restaurant owners who were blindsided: Bowser also announced that live music could return in bars on May 21, and at larger nightclubs three weeks later. Joe Lapan, the co-owner of Adams Morgan’s Songbyrd Music House, says he and his partners had started booking concerts for the fall, not realizing they’d be able to host bands sooner. “The timing snuck up on everyone,” he says. The first in-person show on Songbyrd’s current calendar is Sept. 24, though there’s a live-streamed event on May 27.
While some restaurant owners wonder how they’re going to handle it, others worry about the customers they haven’t seen in a year and how their tastes have changed. “Will guests still want to make reservations?” wonders Fritz Brogan, an owner of Mission in Navy Yard and Dupont Circle. “Will to-go [food and drinks] still be so popular? Will people now used to midnight last call stay until 3 a.m.?”
Overall, restaurant, bar and music venue staffers across the region are eager to get back to doing what they know best — creating memorable experiences, providing that third place for customers to hang out, and, of course, getting back to business in an industry that’s been wrecked over the past year. The thing is, it’s going to take some time before going out on a Saturday night feels like a return to normal. Here are some things you need to know as you plan your big return to dining and nightlife.
Throughout D.C., Maryland and Virginia, the recent lifting of mask mandates is targeted, though not exclusively limited, at those who are fully vaccinated. If you’re not two weeks past your second shot (or first Johnson & Johnson shot), you are strongly advised to continue wearing a mask indoors and when around other people, including interacting with servers and bartenders outdoors.
And, of course, be patient. Be happy to be back at a restaurant or bar. Make reservations where you can, and don’t skip out on them. And always tip well.
Bars and restaurants can still require you to wear masks or even show proof of vaccination.
Although Bowser announced that D.C.’s mask order would no longer apply to fully vaccinated people in most situations, she reiterated that the policy remained the purview of individual businesses. “Take a mask with you when you leave your home, then also respect signs at the places you are visiting,” she said at a May 17 news conference. “If a business posts a sign indicating that masks are required, then you must follow their request . . . or they could deny you entry.”
Tony Tomelden, who owns three D.C. bars and is also executive director of Capitol Hill Association of Merchants and Professionals (CHAMPS), a chamber of commerce organization encompassing dozens of businesses from Barracks Row to H Street NE, says that the business owners he’s talked to are worried that the rules have ended too soon. “There’s still some trepidation,” he says. “The largest group of [restaurant owners] I know seem to want masks up if you’re not eating or drinking,” and will be asking customers to continue to wear masks indoors, despite the lifting of the mask order.
Some restaurants and bars have already taken to social media to tell customers they’ll have to continue wearing a mask on premises for the foreseeable future, including Cotton and Reed Distillery, all Pizzeria Paradiso locations and McClellan’s Retreat cocktail bar. In an Instagram post, Cotton and Reed said some of its servers weren’t two weeks out from their second shot, and they’d be rolling out policy changes in coming weeks.
The takeaway is that it will be different everywhere: Greenbaum is mulling the new policy for her restaurants but thinks she’d like guests to keep masking up while interacting with servers. Guests at Maydan won’t have to wear masks at their table, Previte says, but the new house policy is that masks should be worn when going to the bathroom or entering the restaurant.
Jaleo and other ThinkFoodGroup restaurants “will encourage guests to wear them,” chief operations officer Eric Martino says, “but we’re going to follow the local CDC guidelines, and we’re not going to police them like we did before.” But employees at José Andrés’ restaurants, as at many others, will keep wearing masks while interacting with guests.
Don't expect restaurants to be at 100 percent now — or soon.
The mayor’s order removes all “covid-19 related restrictions on activities,” including capacity limits, beginning at 5 a.m. Friday. For some bars, that means customers are going right back to standing shoulder-to-shoulder indoors, ordering beers straight from the bartender. But for many spaces, it’s just not that easy.
Finding staff, ordering food, beer and wine, getting menus together — “These aren’t things that just happen overnight,” says Peyton Sherwood, the owner of St. Vincent Wine and the Midlands Beer Garden. “I wish that they’d given us a little bit more of a runway, because we know customers are immediately going to start going, ‘Okay, we want this now. It’s allowed, so we want it now.’ It’s good because it feels like we are going to get back to some semblance of normal, which is really nice. But yeah, it’s going to be hard for everybody. We can’t just turn the faucet back on.”
Talking to more than a dozen operators of restaurants and nightspots, few were planning to open the throttle this weekend, and talking about gradual reopenings that could take weeks or months. (And with bars’ social media feeds looking like a help-wanted section, it’s tough to blame them.)
Jaleo, Oyamel and Andrés’ other ThinkFoodGroup restaurants “are taking a very pragmatic and very safe approach to how we reopen,” Martino says. “And so even though restrictions are lessening and occupancy is increasing, we’re still going to be holding at a 50 percent occupancy indoor level, and try to utilize the parklets and the outdoor dining spaces.”
The reasons are twofold, Martino says: The restaurants are trying to make people feel safe as they return to an indoor dining experience, but they’re also dealing with staffing shortages and aren’t prepared for increased demand.
Daniel Kramer, the co-founder of Duke’s Grocery and Duke’s Counter, says putting out more tables and bar seating “will be intense.” (This might be especially true at Duke’s Counter, where the return of maximum capacity coincides with the public opening of the neighboring National Zoo and the debut of panda cub Xiao Qi Ji.) Kramer says he’s letting managers at each location make the call about exactly how many more seats will hit the floor: “We want to be respectful to both our guests and our staff.”
Greenbaum, who owns Little Coco’s, Bar Charley and El Chucho, says the setup at each location will be different, but she intends to keep capacity lower to allow greater distances between tables. She predicts things will look different in six weeks, but even then, “I’m not sure that we’ll be at full indoor capacity until my employees and my customers are ready for it.”
For Previte, it’s about a lack of employees as well as safety. “Truly, our timeline is going to be based on when we feel comfortable with the staffing,” she says. “That might mean [adding] three tables at a time.” Another factor: Maydan cooks meats at an open fire in the middle of the dining room, “and for the safety of the staff, we’ve kept the public out of that area.” There has been one bright spot: Maydan has been able to expand the courtyard seating outside, which Previte had long wanted to do.
Lulu’s Winegarden off U Street is adding a few tables indoors this weekend but is keeping capacity near 50 percent, with a few more tables coming each week. Hank’s Oyster Bar is opening the bar and bar-seating areas at its Wharf and Dupont Circle locations this weekend, but the capacity in the dining sections will remain the same. Those will gradually increase alongside staffing, with a goal of having them return to full capacity by July 4.
Martino says their restaurants got a taste of what they’ve been missing during the Washington Capitals’ recent playoff games, when “there was great atmosphere and energy in Penn Quarter,” but he still thinks it could take until late summer or early fall, once office crowds start to return downtown, before all of ThinkFoodGroup’s restaurants reopen for nightly service.
If your favorite bar has been closed since the pandemic began, don't expect it to reopen right away.
Getting a restaurant ready to go from 25 percent capacity is hard. Getting a bar up and running after it’s been closed for well over a year is worse. Tomelden describes the Pug, the neighborhood bar on H Street NE that turned 13 in February, as “a wreck.” A window has been broken. The air conditioning isn’t working. The TVs aren’t hooked up. “It’s tough to be fallow for a year and then just pop it back open,” he says. He’s hoping to get it up and running in a couple of weeks, after stabilizing his other bars, Brookland’s Finest and Union Trust. “I’m taking it easy,” he laughs.
In Silver Spring, Greenbaum is preparing for an early June return of the Quarry House Tavern, a dark, classic basement bar that’s haunted the corner of Georgia Avenue and Bonifant Street since the 1930s. The problem, she says, is staffing: “Because the Quarry House has been fully closed for so long, a fair amount of our former staff change careers or have moved on or moved out of town,” and finding replacements, especially for such an institution, has been challenging.
But it’s not just places on the divey end of the spectrum that are having problems: The Neighborhood Restaurant Group has multiple locations that haven’t reopened at all during the pandemic, including fabled beer bars ChurchKey and the Sovereign, and Penn Quarter’s Partisan. Director of operations Erik Bergman says the company’s priority is building up capacity at locations that are currently open, such as the Roost food hall and Bluejacket, and “we hope to have the remaining businesses reopened in stages to be complete by the end of the summer.”
Live music is coming back — slowly.
When Bowser initially announced the return of restaurants on May 21 and bars and nightclubs three weeks later, “June 11 became a bright line,” says Songbyrd’s Lapan. “For the majority of live music, there’s a lot of preplanning,” such as booking and arranging tour planning, that make it easier to schedule well in advance. He’s also open to hybrid programming, such as hosting concerts that are also live-streamed.
Whether a business can reopen is based on the classification of its liquor license. Those classed as restaurants and taverns can reopen on May 21, but nightclubs and “multiuse facilities,” a category that includes many concert halls, can move to 50 percent capacity on Friday and can’t fully reopen until June 11. Affected venues include the 9:30 Club and the Black Cat — which have yet to announce any shows before August — but also DC9, which has operated its rooftop and a streetery for parts of the last year, and the Wonderland Ballroom.
One venue with live music back on its schedule this weekend is Pearl Street Warehouse. The small club at the Wharf was part of last fall’s Live Entertainment Pilot, hosting bands on its indoor stage while fans watched from socially distanced tables. What really helped is that the garage door-style walls between the concert hall and the spacious patio roll up, allowing those sitting outside to see the musicians and enjoy the show if they weren’t comfortable being indoors. Co-owner Nick Fontana says they’re following the same formula: There’s no cover charge, but customers need to spend a minimum of $30 on food and drinks indoors and $25 outdoors. Tables inside require free reservations, while the outdoor seats are first-come, first served. Fontana says there will be concerts on Fridays and Saturdays for the rest of May. (The Hamilton, another venue in the 2020 pilot program, began hosting live music with audiences in March.)
You'll still be making reservations and using QR codes.
Over the past year, restaurant and bar customers have gotten used to scanning QR codes to see menus, ordering drinks from an app and paying tabs with the touch of a smartphone. While they were originally embraced as ways to foster contactless interactions between customers and employees, as well as requiring fewer staff, they turned out to actually be pretty convenient.
So even as Duke’s Grocery adds more bar stools and tables, “QR codes save both paper and time, so we are going to stick with them,” co-founder Kramer says, though printed menus are available on request. Payment transaction app ToastTab “is convenient for guests, too, since everyone has a smartphone.”
Ordering and paying from a central app has made it easier for the Roost food hall to have dishes from different stalls — say, tacos, sushi and Detroit-style pizza — delivered to the same table. “Remote ordering is here to stay in many of our environments,” says NRG’s Bergman.
Reservations, too, have proved more popular than expected, and also a way for harried restaurants to manage the flow of customers. Many places are looking forward to having busy bars where customers hang out and wait for a table to open up, but some are reconsidering their stance or requiring reservations only for their outdoor areas, which will be increasingly popular over the summer. But you probably shouldn’t delete Resy or Tock from your phone just yet.
If you're not fully vaccinated, you can still enjoy streaming concerts and fancy takeout.
Not everybody is ready to go back out yet, and that’s fine. The mad rush back to “normal” doesn’t mean the end of the virtual entertainment we’ve come to depend on over the past year. Through the summer, as the Hamilton presents in-person concerts by Joe Pug, the 19th Street Band and the Dirty Grass Players, the club will also offer live streams for those who’d like the catch the action at home. Blues Alley, too, is offering weekly streamed concerts through the end of June and maybe beyond.
It’s a more touch-and-go situation for restaurants as their kitchens begin scaling up for more dining room service: Maydan’s Previte says she plans to keep the family-size Tawle meals for as long as they’re selling, though may scale them back to fewer nights per week. Andrés’s restaurants may offer a more limited selection of dishes and wine pairings in the future, but plan to keep offering takeout. “It was never part of our business model before,” Martino says, but they’ve proved so popular during the pandemic, “it’s not going away.”