Dining and Shopping Return with a (Masked) Smile, Delayed by Protesters

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Cafe Milano on Instagram.

In a letter announcing the return of outdoor dining to Fiola Mare on the Georgetown waterfront, owner and chef Fabio Trabocchi — also of Fiola DC, Sfoglina and Del Mar —
penned these reassuring words to his customers in preparation for the Phase One reopening of D.C.’s restaurants and retail establishments on May 29: “For your safety, all team members will be wearing facial coverings and gloves, but know that behind the mask is our most generous smile.”

As Georgetown establishments scramble to reopen with a smile during the pandemic, business owners perceive widely differing impacts stemming from the Phase One guidelines recommended by the mayor’s ReOpen DC Advisory Group.

The guidelines allow restaurants to offer outdoor dining, though customers must be seated to place orders and dine. Tables must be at least six feet apart, with no more than six guests per table. Customers are still not allowed inside business deemed nonessential; however, delivery and curbside or front-door pickup of remotely ordered items are permitted.

For Martin’s Tavern, a Georgetown landmark, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s guidelines present significant challenges to immediate reopening. The 87-year-old restaurant has weathered the stay-at-home period thanks to its devoted clientele, popular menu items such as the famous crab cakes, and experienced staff (15 have been employees for 10 years or more).

Fourth-generation owner Billy Martin doubts whether opening right away makes sense without clear guidance from city authorities on indoor bathroom use and with stringent six-foot social distancing requirements, permitting only one or two dining tables on the restaurant’s narrow outdoor patio space along the N Street sidewalk.

“We’re kind of in a pickle,” Martin said. He has asked city health authorities a host of pressing questions, such as whether he can mount plexiglass on the railings of his patio area to shield sidewalk pedestrians and customers or move his outdoor seating to the front of Sid Mashburn’s (with owner Bob Elliott’s permission). He also inquired if pedestrian traffic along the adjacent sidewalk can be blocked off to allow full patio operations. So far, he hasn’t heard back.

Chef Jenn Crovato of 1310 Kitchen & Bar at the Georgetown Inn also faces challenges to immediate reopening, especially as the slower summer season approaches and nearby Georgetown University students are away. With plenty of indoor seating, but no outdoor dining space, Crovato has no plans to reopen until September, possibly during Phase Two, when indoor dining might be permitted.

“It’s tough enough to get through July and August in normal times,” she said, “I can’t imagine trying to reopen during COVID-19 when things are already challenging and slow.” Her kitchen, however, will continue to offer “takeout favorites,” such as kale salad, fettuccine with lamb ragu and chicken pot pie, as well as to provide room-service meals at the inn.

At Chaia Tacos on Grace Street, co-founder and co-owner Bettina Stern expects great benefits from the Phase One reopening. She is delighted the Georgetown BID will put bistro tables and chairs out for customers to enjoy, she said. “We are very happy about this shady, welcoming spot opening back up again.”

Though Chaia expects to have to reduce indoor seating space to accommodate social distancing, the eater y’s “elevated to-go” business model, pared-down online menu offerings and a 15-percent surcharge on orders have provided steady revenues.

Shahab Farivar, co-owner of Peacock Cafe, a neighbor favorite on Prospect Street, has opened up outdoor dining once again, though he has reduced table numbers “from 14 to around 9 or 10.” While he naturally expects a much lower volume of dine-in customers than
before the pandemic, the restaurant’s popular dishes, successful takeout and delivery operations, safety cautious staff training and the “good community support base” give cause for optimism.

“We’ve been serving the community for almost 30 years,” he said, “and there’ll be many more. Rest assured — about the care that goes into this restaurant, the preparation of the food, the safety, the sanitation and healthiness of the experience.”

At the Dough Jar, a Wisconsin Avenue edible cookie-dough bakery with no outdoor seating, owner Lindsay Goldin is thankful her shipping, delivery and takeout orders have allowed the store to remain open.

However, she expressed concern that “more people dining out in restaurants nearby with outdoor seating” might result in a decrease in her store’s takeout and delivery revenues.
Goldin is planning to offer in-store ordering soon, but she is worried that having to compete for customer attention with larger nearby restaurants opening up might hurt business. The smaller size of her shop also makes complying with social distancing regulations more difficult.

Ching Ching Cha teahouse on Wisconsin Avenue has seen its overall sales of Chinese tea products and in-store beverage purchases drop by more than 99 percent since the shutdown, according to the shop’s founder, Hollie Wong. Since her customers are seeking a meditative sit-down experience, she is not surprised her online and to-go sales have dropped.

Nevertheless, Wong is optimistic about returning to normal operations in due course. “I’m very grateful,” she said, for “all of the support from our loyal customers, our friends, family,
my staff and my landlord. Because of them, I have not been alone to fight this pandemic.”

At Everard’s Clothing, a fixture on Wisconsin Avenue for 21 years, founder and co-owner Louis Everard has seen buoyant online sales and has no immediate plans to provide curbside service. “If you look at our website, it’s been performing very, very well. So, I’m very, very optimistic for the future,” he said. In fact, he has appreciated being home, enjoying his “staycation” over the last two months.

Everard looks forward to seeing more restaurants open in Georgetown, since the well-dressed clientele adds to his customer base. And he loves the community. “This is a great
neighborhood,” he said. “We all get along on this block. We all know each other and we all share clients.”

For Bacchus Wine Cellar, the stay-at-home order has been a boon to profits and reopening ought to provide even more of a boost. Owner Bassam Al-Kahouagi expects loyal customers who have appreciated the store’s free delivery service to continue calling, while more neighborhood shoppers in a lifting economy should mean increasing numbers of curbside customers.

Phone orders have sustained the business as hours of operation have been cut back. But Al-Kahouagi looks forward to possibly keeping reduced store hours. “Maybe in the future I might change the model of my business where most of my clients keep ordering over the phone,” he said lightheartedly. “Then, we can take it easy.”

Al-Kahouagi has a “good feeling about the future.” “Everything is changing,” he said, “and that change will affect every single business, from hair salons to retail stores like me, to clothing stores, to restaurants, bars, even to offices. I mean, that’s going to be the future — to work from home and to order out.”

Please check your local stores and restaurants to see when they are reopening.

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