Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Get local news delivered straight to your phone

The belief that the customer is always right is crumbling during the COVID-19 pandemic. As restaurant owners and employees move through Phases One and Two of reopening, they find themselves taking on the added stress of acting like lifeguards. They’re constantly reminding diners about rules and recommendations the city has put in place to keep District residents as safe as possible while dining out.

“We live and breathe these guidelines,” says Ian Hilton, the restaurateur behind Chez Billy Sud, Players Club, The Brixton, and other bars and restaurants. We take for granted that everybody sort of knows what they’re supposed to do, like where they’re supposed to wear a mask.” 

Enforcement becomes trickier later in the evening. “As they have more and more beers, they don’t want to be told what to do,” Hilton says. “We’re not trying to be their parents. We are just doing what we’re mandated to do by the government, and we’re doing it for their safety and the safety of our staff. It should go without saying that we’re not doing this to enforce more and more rules to take the fun out of the hospitality business.”

A global pandemic doesn’t come with much of a playbook. Restaurant owners feel pressure to reopen so they can earn enough revenue to pay rent, their employees, and other bills. When the first phase of reopening began on May 29, restaurants could seat patrons outside. Now, during the second phase, they’re permitted to seat dining rooms at 50 percent capacity. 

Some servers, bartenders, and cooks are eager to return to their jobs, especially if they were ineligible for unemployment benefits. Others are concerned about virus transmission and afraid to pick up shifts. States like Florida, Arizona, California, and Texas are seeing significant spikes in COVID-19 cases.

Washingtonians willing to dine at area restaurants have a role to play in making employees and fellow diners feel more at ease, according to DC Harvest co-owner Jared Ringel. “Customers and establishments have to work together way more than before,” he says. “We need to work together to create the safest environment by finding a balance between safe and enjoyable.” 

Chefs, servers, and restaurateurs spell out the specifics of how to be a better customer before, during, and after your meal: 

Do Some Homework

“Read the guidelines before you go out,” Hilton says. “Then you’ll know we’re just following instructions.” Remembering to put down a beer and pick up a mask before using a bar’s bathroom will be difficult at first, but awareness is half the battle. “Our staff are frontline workers. They’re people too. They have fears and worries. Be extra nice to them. Take good care of them. Be more patient than you probably were in the past. It’s so basic. Give us a break. Know the rules.” 

While Mayor Muriel Bowser posts executive orders and guidelines tied to each phase of reopening at coronavirus.dc.gov, customers should also understand that rules will vary from venue to venue. Tyber Creek Wine Bar & Kitchen owner Jordan Mixter says her Bloomingdale business is acting more conservatively than the city. She printed her own guidelines and placed them on every table. Mixter requires customers to clean up after themselves by bringing their trash and recyclables to bins by the exit, and she prohibits them from moving any furniture.

“Not only is no one reading them, but they’re also not following directions when they do read them,” she says. “We’ve had someone tell us, ‘The rules are more relaxed.’ Not only is that untrue, but these are our rules. I don’t care what the mayor says is allowed.” 

Be Patient and Flexible

To serve patrons in the first phase of reopening, restaurants either activated their existing outdoor seating areas or applied to quickly add new spaces. That means the walking distance between the kitchen and the table may have increased, a fact Cork Wine Bar & Market server Karim Soumah wants customers to keep in mind.

“Don’t complain about ticket times,” Soumah says of the time it takes for food and drink to arrive. “You’re working with short staffs and longer distances. I know it can be annoying for a lot of justifiable reasons, but in this case, have more sympathy.”

Pizzeria Paradiso’sdirector of operations, Matt McQuilkin, points out that new procedures may also extend mealtimes. “Due to additional cleaning, sanitizing, and safety protocols, things can take longer than it would under normal circumstances,” he says. 

Many restaurants can’t afford to bring back their full teams immediately, nor can they responsibly fill cramped kitchens with cooks and expect them to maintain a safe distance from one another. The result is smaller menus

“Some of your favorite restaurants might not have dessert on the menu right now,” says Duck Duck Goose chef and owner Ashish Alfred. “Pasta places might not have as many pastas. We don’t have the manpower. We don’t want people stacked up on top of each other cooking. Some people still don’t understand. They ask, ‘How come you’re not open Monday and Tuesdays?’ There’s not enough staff or business to support seven days.” 

“People have this attitude when they don’t see their favorite thing on the menu right now,” Mixter adds. “I’m flattered that people want to see their favorite dishes back. People are like, ‘Where’s the normal menu?’ What about this is normal? Nothing about this is normal.” 

Wear a Mask

Phase Two guidelines for restaurants say patrons must wear face coverings whenever they’re not actively eating and drinking in restaurants. Because COVID-19 spreads through respiratory droplets, mask-wearing is one of the most effective ways to limit transmission. Not everyone is willing to wear one, though.

“The mask is one of the issues that we understand and agree needs to be worn,” says Convivial chef and owner Cedric Maupillier. “It’s been proven by the scientific community that it prevents the spread of the virus. We’re asking guests to wear a mask when they walk into the restaurant to go to the restroom, for example. They don’t wear the mask to protect us and maybe themselves. It’s very frustrating. We’ve had a few conflicts already.”

One day a customer went inside to use the bathroom. When Convivial employees asked the person to put on a mask, they promised not to breathe. “It’s what it sounds like—sarcastic and callous,” Maupillier recounts. “What is the point where we engage? How far do we want to get into a conflict?” 

“We’ve had a lot of customers remove their face masks when they are seated at a table and we’ve had to remind them that D.C. requires them to only remove their masks when actively drinking and eating,” McQuilkin echoes. 

A critical time to wear a mask is when the server is at the table, according to Soumah. “Masks for guests is very difficult,” he says. “I get it. I’ve been a guest at a restaurant as well. But at least be mindful that when you’re about to order and the server is approaching, put your mask on. Once they clear the space, take off your mask again.” 

Masks make a server’s job a little tricky, but that doesn’t take away from their vitalness. “It’s difficult for servers not to be able to smile at guests,” Alfred says. “What is the appropriate volume for us while we’re talking through these masks? There’s lots of, ‘Can you repeat yourself?’ The fear is you lose a lot of the romance that is going out to eat.”

Don’t Bring a Crowd

Restaurants must space tables 6 feet apart, and they still can’t seat parties of more than six patrons. “Don’t show up with the wrong amount of people,” Hilton says. “That really throws things off. Sometimes there’s literally nothing we can do about it. They’ll probably hold it against us forever.” 

Roofers Union General Manager Dave Delaplaine has felt similar pressure. During Phase One, he manned the Adams Morgan bar’s downstairs window and radioed up to his colleagues on the roof deck whenever a new party arrived to ensure groups wouldn’t pass each other in the narrow stairwell. “People get up there and then they’re like, ‘Why can’t my seven friends come up?’” he says.

He goes over the rules with patrons before they make the climb to get seated. “Go into it understanding that we’re not back to normal,” Delaplaine says. “I have friends that are nonchalant about this. I don’t want a friend of mine like that in my restaurant right now.” 

Alfred and Mixter have encountered customers moving tables or adding to their parties without permission. “We’ve gotten groups of people who say there’s 10 of us,” Alfred explains. To accommodate them he’ll sit four at one table and six at another. “Then we see them scooting tables closer together. I feel for them and know they want to hang out with friends, but we can’t allow it. It’s bad optics and makes other guests feel uncomfortable.”

“We have chairs stacked up,” Mixter says. “People are helping themselves and making bigger groups. It changes the 6-foot spacing and party size. When we said something about it, customers pushed back.” 

Know When to Leave

When D.C. gets a summer day with zero humidity, it’s natural for diners to want to linger on a restaurant’s patio. But with restaurants operating at limited capacities, their need to turn tables intensifies. 

“In Adams Morgan, people want to come in for a round of drinks and don’t want to eat,” Delaplaine says. “Restaurants are fighting for their survival at this point. They’re depending on a small fraction of the number of seats they normally offer. Go to restaurants ready to eat dinner.”

Check size also matters. If you’re occupying a table, restaurants ask that diners continue spending money whether that’s another round of drinks or a few dishes to take home to eat the following day. “If you send back a food item you ordered, add another item so you find a way to support the place,” Ringel says. “If you’re in a seat, purchasing something is way more important than before.” 

Alfredo Solis, the chef and owner of Mezcalero, Anafre, and El Sol, reminds customers that if they see others waiting for tables, they should finish up and move on. “We don’t want to rush anybody, but people want to dine with us, so they shouldn’t take too long,” Solis says. “With the new rules, one benefit is you can take your drink with you.”

Some restaurateurs formalized how long groups can sit for a meal. Maupillier only had five outdoor tables to work with during Phase One. When diners went to make reservations on RESY, they were informed tables for one or two people were for an hour and a half; tables of three or four got two hours; and groups of five or six were allotted two and a half hours. Maupillier says he trained his staff to remind guests of the policy when they called to confirm reservations. 

“Still, people don’t listen,” Maupillier says, adding that he’s tried everything short of public shaming. “It doesn’t work like that. We’re in the hospitality business. We have no anger. We treat everyone equally. That’s what people expect from us.” That said, Maupillier is also frustrated by the number of no-shows for reservations. “People didn’t respect the contracts they made with restaurants.”

When customers stay too long, it creates a backlog of people with nowhere to wait. Convivial manager Toni Zuzolo points out that restaurants can’t currently ask patrons to have a drink at the bar while they wait for their table. “Sitting at the bar having a drink is much different from standing outside in the sun,” she says. “Be cognizant of those dining after you.” 

Leave the Right Kind of Feedback

Every dollar counts when you’re facing nearly four months of limited revenue, making the D.C. restaurant scene more competitive than usual. Ringel and other restaurant owners encourage customers to share their experiences and photos on social media. The free advertising helps at a time when many restaurants have paused their contracts with public relations professionals. 

“Go above and beyond to write positive reviews and share experiences via social media,” Ringel continues. “If you have a good experience, make a rule that you’re going to post something that tells your followers as a way to help restaurants out.”

Conversely, now’s not the time for one-star slams. “Stay the fuck off Yelp right now,” Alfred says. “If you have half a soul, there’s no reason to be damaging someone’s business that way. Everybody just launched a brand new restaurant, whether it’s been there five years, 10 years, or five months. We’re figuring out a brand new way to do everything. I think people should be sympathetic to that.”