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When D.C. and several bordering counties in Maryland temporarily banned indoor dining in December because of spiking COVID-19 cases, Northern Virginia restaurant owners’ ears perked up. They wondered if a rush of diners would cross the river to eat in their dining rooms. During parts of the pandemic, the Commonwealth has had slightly looser restrictions or moved to reopen sooner than its regional counterparts.
In Phase 3 of reopening in Virginia, there is no capacity limit on indoor dining. While alcohol sales must end at 10 p.m. and on-premise operations must cease at midnight, restaurants are allowed to seat as many people as they can inside, so long as the tables remain six feet apart. Once tables are socially distanced, however, small restaurants report that they top out at 50 percent capacity or less. Bar seating is off limits, just like it is in D.C.
“I think people love talking about it,” says Níamh O’Donovan, the general manager and company president of Daniel O’Connell’s Irish Bar and Restaurant in Old Town Alexandria. “Everyone was expecting this influx of people from D.C. and Maryland.”
But the owners of Northern Virginia establishments, ranging from fine dining restaurants to pubs, say while there has been a small, anecdotal uptick in new faces, the crush of patrons from D.C. and Maryland hasn’t materialized. Restaurateurs there are struggling to make it to the other side of the pandemic, just like their neighbors.
Diners, seemingly, fear sitting inside where ventilation is poorer than outside because of the known risks of how COVID-19 is transmitted. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its strongest guidance to date related to indoor dining at the end of 2020. “Indoor venues, where distancing is not maintained and consistent use of face masks is not possible (e.g., restaurant dining), have been identified as particularly high-risk scenarios,” the CDC shared.
Nevertheless, five business owners tell City Paper they’ve welcomed more diners from D.C. and Maryland in recent weeks. “We’ve had some people come from D.C.,” says Chef Jonathan Krinn, who owns Clarity in Vienna. The upscale restaurant offers an $87 tasting menu and an a la carte menu. “It’s not a lot in terms of volume, but two or three tables a night in these conditions is actually a lot … I figured there would be desire. I try to talk to everybody who comes in, so I have a good pulse on it.”
The trickle of District residents eager for an indoor meal isn’t always enough to fill Clarity’s reservations. “Most nights we’re not maxing out,” Krinn says. “You are toward the end of the week. We used to be maxed out seven nights a week. The gift you get for making it through 2020 is the first and worst quarter of 2021.”
Nam-Viet Restaurant co-owner Richard Nguyen has similarly seen a bump in diners from Maryland and the District since those jurisdictions paused indoor dining. “We’ve been around for such a long time that I know my clientele,” he says. The Vietnamese restaurant is in Clarendon, but there used to be a second location in Cleveland Park. “The locals have only been doing takeout. The younger couples, people who are coming into the restaurant—we have to card them for alcohol. A majority of licenses are from Maryland and D.C. I hear their conversations about being able to dine over here.”
Meanwhile in Alexandria, Jon Schott, a managing partner at The People’s Drug, King’s Ransom, and The Handover, says when he checks IDs “people are real quick to offer up that they came across the bridge to dine-in.”
On Monday nights Schott teaches cocktail classes at King’s Ransom. There are two, eight-person seatings available for the class at the bar whose menu boasts a smoked pear old fashioned and lemon ginger sour using Japanese gin. “In recent weeks, there’s been a bigger influx of new faces where previously it was dominated by regulars and close acquaintances,” he says, adding that people from D.C. and Maryland are coming to Alexandria for date night.
The People’s Drug is currently offering takeout only. “But since we’re on the street level, I have a lot of people walking around asking for advice on where they can go for indoor dining,” Schott says. “They’ll offer up that they’re visiting us from D.C. or Maryland. Our neighbors are giving us a chance. We’re feeling a bit lucky that we have this chance to connect. If everything was open for dine-in in D.C., we wouldn’t get people. We’re going to make the best out of a shitty scenario.”
Two local restaurateurs—Javier Candon and Ivan Iricanin—operate businesses in both D.C. and Northern Virginia. Both have noticed a small, inconsequential increase in patronage from outside of Northern Virginia.
Fans of Ambar on Capitol Hill have been calling to inquire about indoor dining. Iricanin sends them to the Clarendon location of the Balkan restaurant with all-you-can-eat options. “We’ve been able to generate some reservations, but it’s not a high demand that we can’t handle,” he says. “The volume is still way below where we should be.”
Iricanin also owns TTT in Clarendon, which attracts a younger crowd with its late-night tacos, margaritas, live DJs, and expansive roof deck. Over the summer, when D.C. bars and restaurants were forced to close at midnight, Northern Virginia establishments could stay to 2 a.m. That’s when Iricanin says he saw an actual inundation of Washingtonians based on ID checks at the door. They even experimented with virtual DJ sessions. “This time I don’t see a similar demand in our stores,” he says. “Space is limited and people are scared to go inside.”
Candon, who owns SER in Ballston and Joselito Casa de Comidas on Capitol Hill, concurs. While he’s seen more diners from D.C. and Maryland at SER based on conversations at tables, the hesitation to dine inside remains palpable. Once cold weather arrived, sales numbers dropped to 30 to 40 percent of what they were last year during the same time period.
Those who are venturing in to dine are more youthful than SER’s typical clientele. “Maybe they are less scared to eat inside or outside?” Candon ponders. “Maybe they’re scared of bars because some bars don’t really follow the rules. They may say, ‘If I’m going to go out, I don’t want to be a crowded space’. But because of that, you get customers who don’t know you can’t serve alcohol after 10 p.m.”
The 10 p.m. alcohol cutoff restriction has had the most devastating impact on business, according to Spider Kelly’s co-owner Nick Freshman. It’s eroding any advantage Northern Virginia restaurants might have because indoor dining is permitted. D.C. and parts of Maryland have a similar rule sometimes called a curfew. “People aren’t going out earlier, they’re not going out,” he says. Prior to the pandemic, Freshman says they did a significant amount of business between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. “Ironically, it’s a lot of hospitality workers coming in after their shifts.”
Freshman’s casual bar hasn’t seen an uptick in District and Maryland patronage since the indoor dining pauses, nor has Daniel O’Connell’s, according to O’Donovan. Over the summer, she says the Irish pub expanded its customer base because of its position on the 100 block of King Street. The city converted the area into a pedestrian-only zone.
“That immediately brought us new clientele, way before the D.C. and Maryland shutdown,” O’Donovan explains. The weather was inviting for outdoor dining and bike trails helped people discover the Alexandria waterfront. “Since the recent shutdowns, I haven’t seen an increase.”
Sales, O’Donovan says, haven’t budged. “A small fraction of people are coming over, but the majority are scared and nervous about getting and spreading COVID,” she says. “Places shut down for a reason.”
O’Donovan says she has evidence that customers care about safety first and foremost. The Alexandria Health Department and Visit Alexandria teamed up to launch a program called ALX Promise. Participating businesses pledge to commit to higher safety standards for employees and customers than the minimum rules required by law. O’Donovan, who sits on the board of Visit Alexandria, says that people call the pub to find out if they’re part of the program before they decide to have a meal. “People genuinely say that’s what brought them in,” O’Donovan continues. “People saw there’s a community that’s taking this seriously.”
Ten months into the pandemic, vaccines are finally reaching some residents in the region and restaurant owners are cautiously fantasizing about a return to normalcy. One of the biggest questions they have is whether Washingtonians will flood restaurants once restrictions are lifted and the majority of the population, including restaurant staff, are vaccinated.
It’s tough, however, for restaurateurs to reach any takeaways from this unique time period where Northern Virginia’s restrictions are less severe than D.C.’s when it comes to indoor dining. Indoor dining is set to resume in D.C. at 25 percent capacity on January 15. Montgomery County did not set a end date for its indoor dining pause. “The connection between a boom once the world reopens and what’s happening now is not a straight line,” Freshman says. “The people going out now are not as concerned about what’s happening.”
Customer behavior has been difficult to predict throughout the pandemic. “Because of COVID, we’ve been taught a hard lesson—anyone who feels they can predict the next four to six months, those days are long gone,” O’Donovan says. Schott agrees. “It’s anyone’s best guess,” he says. “It’s hard to get a finger on the pulse of what people are going to do. People seem eager to go out. Restaurants and bars represent the normalcy and regularity of the before times.”