The mourning for restaurants as they were isn’t over, not by a long shot. Many of us continue to miss the buzz of busy dining rooms, the highs from chef-made meals, before the novel coronavirus entered the picture and 2020 became, in the words of Washington chef Eric Ziebold, “the lost year of everybody’s life.”
At least 100,000 restaurants have closed in the past six months, according to a September report from the National Restaurant Association. Nearly 3 million workers remain out of work, and the food service industry is on track to lose $240 billion, says the trade group.
On top of this, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently predicted that most of the American public will not have access to a vaccine until late spring or summer of next year.
And yet, at least in Washington, at least this season, more restaurants seem to be opening than closing, and unlike in the spring, when I penned a tear-streaked mash note to the industry I feel grateful to cover, fall feels ripe for a pulse check, even a dining guide to reflect on the smart ways the market has responded to the blow of a global crisis.
For seven months now, chefs and restaurateurs who’ve lasted during the biggest-ever disruption to their industry have been tasked with turning lemons into limoncello. I asked some of the leaders of the pack around Washington for their endurance tips.
“Get a patio!” advised David Deshaies, whose seating capacity at Unconventional Diner almost doubled in August when he expanded to the sidewalk and street with 84 chairs.
“Keep the menu small” and make sure you use every single ingredient, says Seng Luangrath, who saves cilantro stems and onion skins for use in curries and stocks at the Laotian-flavored Padaek in Falls Church.
“Be creative,” offers Rose Previte, the owner of Compass Rose and Maydan. She’s sold off the wine amassed over Compass Rose’s six-plus years, and even the kitchen’s spices. Late last month, the tiny international restaurant launched a bakery and bodega offering, among other wares, the handiwork of her new pastry chef Paola Velez, formerly of Kith/Kin.
The guidance from Jon Krinn, chef-owner of Clarity in Vienna, boils down to one word: “Diversify,” he says. No area restaurant has gone to greater lengths to ensure its survival than his upscale American establishment in Northern Virginia. “On March 14,” he recalls, “I had a hundred ideas on how to push the business forward.” Obviously, takeout was part of his plan, but he knew food to go couldn’t be his only life ring, and luckily Krinn was able to offer customers a big parking lot on which to enjoy his five-course, $95 tasting menu — beneath tents but on china. The result: “a quick infusion of cash.”
His mantra became “adjust, adjust” and so he did, in fast fashion. Beloved for its multiple menus and big open kitchen, the restaurant moved what Krinn calls “the center of gravity” outside, where the chef brought in first a smoker (“people identify with barbecue”), then an Argentine-style grill. People who might come occasionally for his fancier fare now had fresh reason to drop by for comfort food — which they could also watch, from a safe distance, being prepared. He added oysters to the equation — like barbecue, bivalves have lots of fans — and for cigar aficionados, Krinn set up a lounge nearby.
“People want to feel good.”
And safe. When the tenants on the second floor of his building moved out, Krinn thought to grab the private offices and make them into intimate (and secure) dining pods — fall is here, don’t you know. He’s thinking of placing multiple open-sided tents together, fanned out in an onion shape, and erecting heaters. The thought of his customers bundled up around a fire pit makes him happy, a state he hopes he can sustain until spring.
Krinn attributes his ongoing success to an earlier failure: the demise of his luxe restaurant, Inox in Tysons, two years after the 2008 recession. After Inox shuttered, he joined Booz Allen Hamilton, where he worked as a marketing strategist until two years ago, even after opening Clarity in 2015. Krinn says he got “zero sleep, but I felt I wasn’t done learning.”
The big takeaways: The recession didn’t kill Inox. Krinn’s “glaring weaknesses” did, says the chef. He now sees challenges as opportunities to innovate.
The distance between Inox and 2020 involves healthy perspective. Still, there’s pressure on his industry to keep diners engaged.
“Even blockbuster movies only pack theaters for two weeks,” says Krinn. “Restaurants are like movies that are required to pack theaters for multiple years.”
Washington might be in a better position to weather the ongoing storm than some other major food cities, including wildfire-beleaguered Los Angeles and high-rent New York, which only last month allowed indoor dining. It helps that the 6 million-plus people in the D.C. region have an estimated 2020 median family income of $126,000, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. (The national estimated average for this year is $78,500.)
Thomas Papadopoulos, a commercial real estate broker since 1979, says neighborhood restaurants — “places people can walk to a few nights a week” — and businesses with outdoor seating have definite advantages over the competition. And of some dining establishments that shuttered during the pandemic, he offered this stinging assessment: “Half should have closed anyway.” Coronavirus was simply “the nail in the coffin” of places that weren’t doing well despite a strong market, says Papadopoulus, whose portfolio includes Annabelle in Dupont Circle, Rumi’s Kitchen in Mount Vernon Triangle and Immigrant Food near the White House.
History might be on the market’s side, says the commercial real estate broker. During the recession 12 years ago, “D.C. was pretty steady,” compared with other cities, and remains so. Meanwhile, “chefs and owners are going to have to be creative, and landlords are going to have to be flexible for the next 24 months.” Papadopoulus says landlords don’t want to see empty spaces; potential buyers can pick and choose.
Can I be frank, too? While I wouldn’t wish a closed restaurant or a lost job on anyone, there are some things about the business I don’t mind seeing go. Mile-long menus, napkin fluffing, tables set so close you were in danger of knocking over a stranger’s wineglass when you squeezed your way into your seat — all are poised for the way-things-were bin, thank goodness. (Seriously, do you really want your lipstick- or soup-stained napkin to be rearranged into origami while you’re in the restroom?)
Takeout — save for all the packaging around it — has been helpful, for diners and restaurants alike. But no chef wants to see his or her food eaten out of a box forever. And yet, restaurants have gone out of their way, as they always have, to make diners feel nurtured beyond just the cooking. Thank you, Muchas Gracias, for the cute labels you affix to some dishes. And I appreciate the gratis pint of ice cream that Happy Gyro tucked into my takeout, an extension of what the owners do, and not just for critics, at sibling restaurant Little Serow. Rose’s at Home includes such lovely missives in its delivered dinners, it’s as if I’m among friends at Rose’s Luxury. Those and other extra touches endear us to restaurants even when we can’t be there in person. They also remind us that loyalty goes both ways.
Going forward, there will surely be fewer restaurants, at least for the foreseeable future, but my sense is, those still standing — and any new ones that emerge — will be improvements on the past.
Long before the pandemic, many of the people who grew our food and washed our plates were working in uncomfortable conditions for not much money. Americans are used to cheap food, but if they care about equity in this country, they’re going to have to be willing to pay more for restaurant meals. I don’t see tipping going away anytime soon, but I applaud businesses that build into the cost of a meal the cost of hospitality — living wages and benefits for the whole of a restaurant staff. This is a dispiriting time for all of us, but — cup half full — also an opportunity to reimagine everything.
My head isn’t stuck in the clouds. I know people are hurting, and I recognize the hurdles. Life feels as if it’s on hold many days.
“The goal,” he says, “is to make it through this and nothing more than that.”
It’s hard to think about the future when you’re treading water with weights on, but time and again, challenges have brought out the best in restaurants.
Here’s hoping for more patios, and a warm winter.
Tom Sietsema is The Washington Post’s food critic.
Design by Christian Font. Photo editing by Jennifer Beeson Gregory.