Habesha Ethiopian Restaurant in Shaw Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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In a move that startled the D.C. hospitality industry, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced on May 10 that restaurants and bars could dramatically increase their seating capacities starting this Friday.

The new mayor’s order, issued today, makes some tweaks. Starting on May 21 at 5 a.m., both restaurants and taverns/bars can fully reopen at 100 percent capacity. Restrictions tied to social distancing such as spacing tables out six feet apart, early closing times, and forbidding patrons from sitting at staffed bars will be lifted. Nightclubs, cigar bars, and hookah bars can jump from 25 to 50 percent capacity on May 21 and later to 100 percent capacity on June 11.

Bowser also announced changes to D.C.’s mask mandate so that it mirrors the recommendations released by the Centers for Disease Control last week. They go into effect today. “Fully vaccinated people only need to wear their mask or social distance in places where it is required,” Bowser says. (People are considered fully vaccinated 14 days after their final dose.) “If you’re not vaccinated or not fully vaccinated, we need you to continue to protect yourselves. If you’re 12 or over, make a plan to get vaccinated.”

Masks are still required for everyone in some settings such as on public transit, in schools, in healthcare settings, at homeless shelters, and when an individual’s workplace requires it.

Make no mistake. This is a time to celebrate. But while restaurant workers, managers, and owners say they’re happy to see old and new faces, there will inevitably be growing pains that impact the dining experience. Restaurants and bars weren’t given much notice before learning they could go from 25 to 100 capacity in a matter of weeks. Councilmembers and others pressed the city for a reopening road map similar to those other cities and states put in place, which call for more gradual opening plans tied to vaccination metrics. Bowser, instead, moved to fully reopen the economy by mid-June.

“Who’s to say whether guests in general, and my staff, will be comfortable in such close proximity to strangers?” asks Chris Francke, owner of The Green Zone in Adams Morgan. “While it’s exciting and long-awaited, I feel that flipping the switch back on at this point seems hasty.” 

Customers have the right to expect quality food and drink backed by welcoming hospitality as restaurants and bars swiftly navigate reopening, but there are a number of ways patrons can play a part in making the experience better:

Follow House Rules

Businesses have the right to set rules that are more strict than what the city or Centers for Disease Control recommend. The easiest way to think about this is pretending you’re going to a new friend’s house for dinner. If they tell you to remove your shoes before entering or ask you to say grace, you’ll likely oblige. Restaurants, right now, are no different. They can decide how many tables they seat, what parts of the establishment are for staff only, and who has to wear a mask and where. Pay attention to signs, information on menus, and verbal instructions from employees.

“Just because restrictions are lifted does not mean that everything will go back to how it used to be at the blink of an eye,” say Chad Spangler, Glendon Hartley, and Christine Kim of the Shaw cocktail bar Service Bar. “All restaurants may have different rules and different levels of relaxed policies regarding COVID. Please don’t assume each will be the same, and put an effort into understanding each establishment’s practices.” 

Several owners point out that they don’t have to fill their dining rooms right away. “We are all elated about the freedom to open our restaurants on the upcoming given dates and we look forward to that moment,” says Thamee chef and co-owner Jocelyn Law-Yone. “There is much that needs to be done before we fling our doors open. We are immigrants, we know what needs to be done and we will do it by balancing our humility and confidence. In return, we ask that guests take notice that not all restaurants want or can join a race to open up.”

Sandra Basanti of Pie Shop, a fellow H Street NE business owner, describes the city’s loosening of restrictions as an invitation not a mandate. “The announcement gives everyone the green light on planning for full reopening, which for many—particularly music venues—can take months,” she explains. “As always, the big ask is patience and flexibility as we all navigate this next phase together.”

Republic Cantina co-owner Chris Svetlik agrees many establishments will adopt a more gradual approach to reopening even if the city didn’t. He polled fans of his Tex-Mex restaurant on Instagram about their preferences. “Among 500 respondents we saw significant hesitancy toward ‘full capacity’ dining,” he says. 

Svetlik predicts businesses will determine what “feels right” for staff and customers, but expresses some trepidation because now restaurant owners are the ones in control. “In some ways the city restrictions gave us easy cover for the inconveniences that came with COVID-era dining,” he says. “Now that some of the restrictions will be self-imposed, it will take another round of iteration on layout, workflows, and how we communicate.”

Some parts of restaurants won’t be available to customers, so don’t switch tables without asking permission and don’t commandeer an empty bar. Vacant areas might be there for self-imposed social distancing or as makeshift staging areas for takeout orders. “A lot of spaces inside dining rooms will be off-limits to customers in a way that will feel strange and at odds with our hospitality mindset,” Svetlik says. “[That’s] likely to frustrate and confuse guests.” 

Even though the city largely lifted its mask mandate for fully vaccinated people, businesses can still ask customers to wear masks. “Take a mask with you when you leave your home,” Bowser urged Monday. “Respect signs at the places you are visiting. If a business posts a sign indicating that masks are required, then you must follow their request or they could deny you entry.”

Employees may continue to wear them too. Consider that workers might have children at home who aren’t eligible for vaccines yet. “There will still be some servers who feel comfortable wearing the mask, leave them alone,” urges Nam-Viet Restaurant co-owner Richard Tai Nguyen. “Don’t nitpick and argue with them for their choice. Also, don’t make it political.” 

Be Patient

Restaurants and bars are scrambling to find enough employees to expand their capacities without sacrificing the experience diners expect. Cities across the country are experiencing staffing crises for myriad reasons. In the District, workers report feeling abused by customers and bosses and forsaken by the city that put them in the position of enforcing COVID-19 restrictions. Some aren’t in a rush to return to an industry where benefits, wages, and human resources support lag behind other sectors.

“Guests may want to keep in mind that so many workers have now left the industry and that dining is ramping back up to full speed in D.C. during May, usually one of our busiest months,” says server Michael W. “The people who are working are glad to be back and to have restrictions lifted, but are likely working longer hours and more days on end without a day off. Even though we are trying to ramp up as quickly as possible, it takes a while to properly train new staff.”

It might take a little longer for cocktail orders to materialize if a server is juggling more tables than usual and menus might be shorter if a kitchen is lacking manpower. The staff that is working might be a little rusty. “Serving 25 percent of a restaurant around COVID regulations is a lot different than regular full-scale service,” the team from Service Bar says. “[We’re] a high-volume establishment and we haven’t been able to practice and hone our skills like we used to, so be patient with us. We all have to shake off the cobwebs.”

“Mostly, we ask for patience from you, our customers,” says Pizzeria Paradiso chef and owner Ruth Gresser. “We may be short staffed and seating fewer tables. We may ask you to use digital menus, or we may not take cash. We may have smaller menus and less drink options.” Regardless, she says, her restaurants are striving for professionalism. “We hope you recognize that while we all want to return to the world we knew, our world is forever changed.” 

Daniel Kramer, a managing partner at Duke’s Grocery, Duke’s Counter, and Gogi Yogi, adds, “the pandemic sucked for everyone who wasn’t making masks or sanitizer, but we are in this together, so just a little extra kindness and respect in all directions will go a very, very long way.” 

Accept That Dining Out Won’t Be The Same

Restaurants and bars are busy squaring the old way of doing business that predated the pandemic with the strategies they put in place to try and outlast it. That includes technology and policies that limit interaction.

“You have an industry labor force that was essentially shit on for 14 months,” says Sloppy Mama’s BBQ co-owner Joe Neuman. “People have left town or people have switched industries and they are not coming back. Diners are going to have to [get] used to using things like a QR-code ordering system or counter service.” Even if full-service dining doesn’t look or feel the same, Neuman hopes customers still find satisfaction. “At least they don’t have to clean and cook everything.” 

Francke from The Green Zone thinks diners got used to some of the new facets of dining out that Neuman mentions and believes bouncing back to how things were isn’t realistic. “Too many people have become used to ordering and paying online, making reservations at venues that previously didn’t accept them, and taking their drinks to-go,” he says. 

Like Michael W., the timing has Francke worried. “With the restrictions being lifted as we get into peak patio season, plenty of people will still want to enjoy sitting outdoors in expanded patio, sidewalk, and streatery spaces, while plenty of others will still want the full pre-COVID indoor experience,” he says. “Reconciling all these is our greatest challenge.”

Diners may also have to pay more for food and drink as restaurants and bars try to recoup 14 months of lost revenue, raise staff wages to compete for employees, and purchase ingredients that cost more because of supply chain shortages or sudden demand. Discounts may disappear as a result. 

“Please understand that happy hours or special offers that were available before are really difficult to approach now,” the team from Service Bar says. “We likely will not offer a happy hour in the same way as before.” Happy hour dishes and drinks are often offered at a loss with the hopes that customers will stay and order full-price items later on. “We simply cannot sustain any more losses. We just went through a pandemic and everyone that is still open is still recovering.”

Keep Your Reservation or Cancel in Advance

Diners are undoubtedly excited about exploring D.C.’s dining scene as they get vaccinated and feel safer venturing out. A bevy of new restaurants managed to open and established restaurants are looking forward to seeing their regulars again. But as you plot your nights out, honor the reservations you make or cancel with plenty of notice. 

“People think it’s OK to no-show for a reservation?” Bastille chef and co-owner Michelle Poteaux asks with exasperation. “Seriously? We have limited ability to seat guests and you think it’s OK to do this? This hurts all of us, not just the restaurant, but our staff who are anticipating your arrival.”

Mother’s Day weekend was particularly rough for the Alexandria restaurant when it came to last-minute cancellations and no-shows. Poteaux says one patron made a reservation for six people using OpenTable and entered his credit card information in case the restaurant needed to use its cancellation policy. The would-be customer got “very angry” when Bastille charged him $45 per person for canceling with three hours notice, according to Poteaux.

“I turned away at least 30 people because he had confirmed,” she says. “We called him three days in advance and repeatedly to confirm his reservation. Empty seats cost us money, and while we all love what we do, we don’t do it for free.” 

Communicate

Early in the pandemic, City Paper published the precursor to this story entitled Eat, Pay, Leave. Capacity limits were severely limited at the time, making it critical for restaurants to turn tables quickly to pay the bills. Some restaurant employees are now saying it’s OK to linger, especially if you communicate your intentions. 

“If you’re done eating, leave and pay,” says bartender Ashley Bundy. “However, if you and friends are continuing to drink and eat, be upfront and honest with the staff and ask if they are OK with that. As a bartender, I’d rather have a group enjoying themselves drinking and eating than having to flip the section multiple times and get potential assholes or additional exposure.”

She encourages patrons to be transparent about their wants and needs so they have the best experience possible. Call ahead to make special requests. “If customers are heading back to their favorite bars, it’s OK to ask to sit in a specific section to reconnect with your favorite server or bartender,” Bundy says.

Provide the Right Kind of Feedback

Now’s not the best time for punishing reviews, business owners say. Ian Callender, for example, opened his second location of Sandlot in Georgetown this month. “People will have a high level of expectation on food and beverage establishments and cultural spaces like ours to operate as if we weren’t just in a whole pandemic,” he explains.

Yet he got dinged with a one-star Google review opening weekend. “We had our best in class on site, including myself, yet this individual attempted to compromise our existence when they clearly didn’t understand the objective to begin with,” Callender says. “These reviews mean everything to the integrity of a business and we need everyone to understand that come May 21 and June 11.”

That’s not to say restaurants don’t want feedback. “I would ask customers to consider how difficult it’s been for us to jump through all the hoops and regulations to ensure that we are always keeping them and our staff safe,” Poteaux from Bastille says. “When we make mistakes, it’s not on purpose and we really are genuinely sorry. We want to correct things when they happen. … Just tell us while you’re there.”

And, if you were particularly impressed by a meal, tell your friends and share photos on social media. A little word-of-mouth advertising goes a long way at a time when restaurants may not have the time or money to market themselves.

Tip 

The pandemic has brought about a renewed push to move away from tipping, especially as Congress weighed gradually eliminating the tipped minimum wage as a part of a push for a $15 federal minimum wage that died in the Senate. Some D.C. restaurants took it upon themselves to swap out tipping for service charges, but tip culture largely remains intact. 

While servers and bartenders say most customers were especially generous during the pandemic, some have noticed that tips are dropping off lately. James, a server, says it’s disturbing that people are leaving tips that are less than 10 percent of the bill. “We get that it’s part of our job to cater to their needs, but also we do ask their kind consideration,” he says. “Our work has been so much to bear since the pandemic started. The workload has doubled since some of our colleagues don’t want to work anymore or moved on to another job.”

“Initially when we reopened, people were being awesome and tipping on their to-go food,” Bundy adds. “Now that’s completely stopped. I’m not sure how other places work, but I’m not only making drinks for the entire place and my own tables but also taking to-go orders as well. The person that packs your food and enters the order relies on those tips too.” She argues there’s hospitality baked into takeout too. “We get to know your quirks and do recognize repeat orders and try to ensure they have everything and maybe something extra.”

Server Michael W. nudges diners to spend what they can and tip support staff. “Please splurge on yourself, enjoy extra food and drinks, and a nice, big bottle of wine,” he says. “If a busboy or busgirl goes out of their way to make your meal special or enjoyable, please consider sliding them a 5- or 10-spot. Those little gestures of kindness go a long way to helping restaurant employees keep their positive frame of mind and really re-affirming our faith in humanity.”

Nguyen from Nam-Viet thinks the pandemic helped Washingtonians gain a new appreciation for the individuals who make up the hospitality industry. “The last year we’ve gained empathy and understanding with service industry workers,” he says. “Keep having that empathy and don’t go back to looking down at your servers or thinking they’re inferior because they’re in this line of work. The sense of understanding and compassion should be there moving forward, not just expressed when it’s convenient.” 

Law-Yone of Thamee concludes that it will take diners and everyone inside restaurants and bars to get through this tricky time. “A miraculous connection between guests and hosts results from observation and mutual respect,” she says. “Perhaps, when we all step in together, we can get back that magic we so missed while we were socially distanced.”