Credit: Illustration by Julia Terbrock

Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

When Sandra Basanti answers the phone, she sits in the dark, decade-old dining room of Pie Shop on H Street NE, peering at a picture of Bob Marley on the wall. Her business is part restaurant and part performance venue—she misses the music most of all. “My entire life, my therapy, my escape, and community revolves around the live music scene and going to shows and seeing familiar faces,” she says. “That’s just not going to happen this year.”

Ten months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Basanti’s morale is suffering. Like all entrepreneurs, she prefers to be in the driver’s seat, making plans and projections. “Being at the mercy of the city and what’s happening in the country and the world, that part is nerve-wracking,” she says. “The mental gymnastics of it all is exhausting. The back and forth. The yo-yoing. We all have whiplash from the different rules and regulations that are constantly changing. The mental burnout is so real.”

Fluctuating operating restrictions that accompany the city’s phased reopening process have exhausted the owners and staff of local bars and restaurants. District leaders have frequently adjusted policies since the stay-at-home order was lifted on May 29, as they try to mitigate risk while dealing with the consequences of the pandemic and the accompanying economic recession. Restaurants have been crawling toward a hazy finish line, hoping the federal government will finally step in with targeted relief, even though it might be too late.

Most recently, Mayor Muriel Bowser mandated restaurants reduce their indoor seating capacities from 50 to 25 percent starting Dec. 14. Jurisdictions across the country are ending indoor dining because multiple studies deem the activity risky. She also imposed a 10 p.m. cutoff for on-premises alcohol sales. These moves come as D.C. recorded 1,451 new cases of COVID-19 and 12 deaths in the first five days of December alone.

Some owners have opted not to open to the full extent the District permits. City Paper spoke with Basanti and three other operators who have dialed back activities of their own volition, opting to focus on takeout and delivery for the time being. In discussing the rationale behind their tough calls, they all mention their employees. When restaurants swing from being open to closed except for takeout, they typically reduce staffing levels. Job security is low and the District’s unemployment system continues to be difficult to navigate.

Pie Shop’s dining room has remained closed throughout the pandemic, but Basanti opened the establishment’s patio in September. Optimistic she could attract customers even in the cold, she applied for a $6,000 winterization grant from the District. She spent $2,000 of the money she received on marketing the patio, but ultimately returned the grant. The money wasn’t a match for the risk.

“It wasn’t financially sustainable,” Basanti says. “We appreciated the people who did come, but it’s not the kind of place where you’re going to spend $100 per person on pie and drinks. We decided we’re not even going to try when cases kept spiking. Temperatures are going to drop. It’s flu season. It’s not worth the risk to employees and patrons. We made the call finally and returned the funds.”

Basanti wishes aid arrived in a different order. The winterization grant had a swift spending deadline and tight stipulations on how the money could be allocated, and only benefitted venues with outdoor space. “I wish that they had rolled out the Bridge Fund earlier instead of winterization, because then people really could have gotten money that could be used for all sorts of things,” she says.

The Bridge Fund is a $100 million grant program earmarked for D.C.’s hardest hit sectors: hotels, restaurants, entertainment, and retail. The city is tending to hotels first, but restaurants will see the largest disbursement of grant money—$35 million in total. The application process opened Monday, Dec. 7. Like all grants, there are guidelines for how funds can be spent, but there’s far more wiggle room.

“They should have rolled this out in August to get ahead of the winter,” Basanti says. “If we can get assistance, I hope I can give my staff some mental health paid time off to decompress. And like everybody, we have fixed costs. I really avoid thinking too far into the future because it’s too daunting.”

Shaw bar Ivy and Coney can also only think in the immediate term and decided to close its outdoor space, despite investing time and resources to make it cozy. Sunday, Dec. 6, was the last day patrons could dine and drink on the roof deck until the owners feel confident operating again. In the meantime, they’ll focus on takeout and delivery, just as they did from mid-March through late July, when they first welcomed customers onto the roof. They have yet to reopen their indoor space.

“Ninety-five percent of the decision was the rise in cases,” says co-owner Josh Saltzman. “It looks like it’s going to get worse once the results of Thanksgiving come in. It’s not safe right now. We did one last weekend to get some more money into our staff’s pockets so we can try to ride this out. It’s just a pause, hopefully a short one.”

Saltzman describes 2020 as the “most brutal” year of his life. “Me and my wife went to a one-income household,” he says. “[Co-owners] Chris [Powers] and Adam [Fry] are the same way. Luckily, we have significant others who have been supportive because we’re trying to keep as many people employed as possible.”

Bartending loses its appeal when you’re not slinging drinks to droves of patrons cheering on their favorite teams, according to Saltzman. “It’s tough to come in excited for work when the max we can seat is 18 people in a bar that used to hold many multiples of that,” he says. “One of the things people like about bartending is that it’s fast-paced. When it’s slower and [limited to] table service, it’s harder to keep yourself going. Saturday nights used to fly by.”

Saltzman is counting on financial support from the Bridge Fund to carry his bar to its seventh anniversary in January. “The name and everything is what it needs to be—a bridge to vaccines,” he says. “I wish the federal government had been as responsive as the D.C. government in trying to come up with ideas.”

He believes the feds, in ignoring near-constant calls for specific aid for the hospitality industry, aren’t grasping the full supply chain involved in keeping restaurants running. “Think about the laundry company that supplies us with bar rags in Columbia Heights,” Saltzman continues, referring to A Andrews Linen Services. “It’s everyone. Any funds that help us get through this tough period ensures there will be community on the other end.”

Two newer restaurants, Queen’s English and Baan Siam, say they’ve fared as well as possible during the pandemic and are cautiously optimistic about the future. They too will focus on takeout and delivery in the coming months.

Sarah Thompson and Chef Henji Cheung brought Columbia Heights modern Hong Kong cooking when Queen’s English opened last year. After Bowser suspended on-premises dining on March 15, Thompson says they decided to go dormant for seven weeks. “That was the hardest day of my adult life, having to call 15 staff members to say we have to close,” she says.

The restaurant opened again at the end of April for takeout and delivery. Once Phase 2 of reopening got underway in June, Queen’s English set out five patio tables. Then they secured a streatery in August, allowing them to seat as many people outside as they could in their 1,400-square-foot dining room before the pandemic. Like Ivy and Coney and Pie Shop, Queen’s English hasn’t dabbled in indoor dining.

Their streatery setup was inviting. Receiving a winterization grant allowed Queen’s English to invest in outdoor furniture and lighting, plus tents for the spring. But December’s cold snap doesn’t jibe with fine dining, and reliably acquiring propane has been a challenge. They too will revert to takeout and delivery in January, after a short break to give employees time to recuperate and quarantine before spending time with family.

“With our style of service, it would require a lot of employees being outside,” Thompson explains. “Why are we trying to serve in 40 degree weather? It’s not fun for the guest and it’s not fun making your employees stand out there.”

For restaurants whose food doesn’t translate well to being boxed up, clinging to outdoor dining may be the only chance for survival. They’re hoping Washingtonians will make like Scandinavians by bucking up and dressing in layers. Baan Siam partner Tom Healy isn’t convinced that will happen.

“Outdoor dining is dropping off,” he says. The data-obsessed restaurant co-owner tracks how many people are searching for reservations on online platforms. “It dropped like a stone as soon as the weather started averaging 40 degrees … When the wind is blowing 25 miles per hour, it’s miserable.”

Baan Siam in Mount Vernon Triangle has only received a winterization grant. Other forms of aid were off limits because the restaurant just opened in June. Businesses often have to share sales and staffing histories to be eligible for funds. The Northern Thai restaurant initially utilized 16 outside tables, but recently dropped to seven. “For the brave souls that want to come out, we have tents and heaters,” Healy says.

The restaurant is fortunate that its food travels well. A new to-go deal featuring two appetizers, two entrees, a dessert, and two drinks for $60 is enticing diners. The kitchen is slammed, according to Healy. “When you have days that are cold and dark and you see Chef [P’Boom] in the kitchen with flames shooting out of the wok, you think, ‘God, that’s great!’”

Unlike Pie Shop, Ivy and Coney, and Queen’s English, Baan Siam experimented with indoor dining starting in August. “Case numbers were down, the restaurant is huge, and we had our ventilation redone,” Healy says. “We felt pretty secure about it.”

That feeling didn’t last. “People started getting more and more lax with the rules,” Healy explains. “There were more incidents of conflicts with customers who didn’t want to wear masks. We made the decision, as a restaurant with our staff, that if we were losing control of the situation, we’d stop. We’re months away from a vaccine. All I have to do is get my crew through this without anyone getting infected and I’ve won the game.”

Healy knows he’s privileged to be in the position to close indoor dining and scale back outdoor dining. He has an understanding landlord and has turned $3,600 in profit in the six months they’ve been operating. That may not seem like much, but many restaurants are only bringing in 20 to 40 percent of their typical sales, breaking even at best and hemorrhaging money at worst.

“We’re doing OK,” Healy continues. “Everyone has reached this zombie-like state of just accepting every hit that comes along. We’re on this roller coaster every day trying to find where solid ground is. The vaccine is the biggest hope on the horizon. As we continue to have to make changes on what is now like a monthly basis, at least we know there’s hope.”