December 30, 2020 at 9:11 am EST | by Evan Caplan
Restaurants, bars put creativity on the menu in 2020
dining 2020, gay bar, gay news, Washington Blade
Bars and restaurants like Nellie’s faced government restrictions limiting occupancy in 2020. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Resilience. Arguably more so than any other industry, the restaurant world displayed the remarkable ability to adapt and transform in the face of enormous – and still mounting – challenges.

The year 2020 started off buoyed by optimism across the dining scene. New restaurants opened seemingly daily. The confidence among the food industry analysts was contagious and exciting. On Monday, March 16, everything changed. At 10 p.m., the mayor required all bars and restaurants to close in-person dining. The order followed weeks of ever-changing regulations, requiring limits to total capacity, an end to bar seating, and a halt to standing room at drinking-only spots. Nightclubs were ordered closed entirely. Many in the restaurant industry itself clamored for such orders as part of the #shutusdown campaign on social media, requesting that the government protect customers and citizens by officially moving to close indoor spaces for health and safety.

Restaurants, of course, require customers to survive. It was at this juncture that many establishments completely changed their business model to focus on delivery and takeout, cutting menu items and adapting to offering comfort food in a time of upheaval and uncertainty. In the context of the rash of restaurant closures, however, thousands of workers lost their jobs, whether outright layoffs or temporary furloughs. Soon after the string of shutterings, Congress passed the PPP program: small businesses could apply for forgivable loans to pay for costs such as payroll, rent, and utilities, for a term of 24 weeks.

While the PPP served as a temporary fix for businesses, out-of-work employees were forced to turn to unemployment benefits (also temporary). But this was not enough for many staff supporting families. Chefs and restaurateurs joined forces to offer additional assistance and relief funds.

Celebrity chef Jose Andres closed several of his Think Food Group restaurants to serve as “Community Kitchens” to provide free food for laid-off staff. His World Central Kitchen organization began a Restaurants for the People program, which enables restaurants to cook for underserved communities. In a recent interview with Bon Appetit, he noted that the industry is “in for a big fight in the months ahead … We are an army of millions, and those people need to go back to work to feed America. Restaurants have always been a place to break bread, a place to come together. It’s about restoring our bodies and our faith in each other and the idea that together we can get through this.”

In late May, after more than two months after the initial closings, D.C. moved into Phase One of its three-part opening plan. Restaurants were allowed to begin outdoor dining, given six feet of space between tables. A month later, the city transitioned to Phase Two, which allowed for indoor dining at 50% capacity, though all diners are required to be seated. Washington, D.C. remains in Phase Two, but as of Dec. 14, indoor capacity has been scaled back to 25% due to an increase in COVID-19 cases.

The industry also had a reckoning over the summer during the Black Lives Matter movement. As the movement demonstrated, food is more than ingredients on a plate – it is inherently political, carrying the weight of its servers and sourcing as much as the vision of the chef. Black-owned restaurants like Halfsmoke and Cane came together to showcase the depth of Black-run eateries in D.C., but also ensuring that customers realize the importance of the impact of their dollars.

Unable to serve indoors at full throttle, restaurants and bars put creativity on the menu and stepped outside the box – and into al fresco. Restaurants moved to take advantage of the city’s Streatery program, in which the Department of Transportation allowed businesses to set up outdoor, social-distance dining and drinking tables along sidewalks, alleys and parking spaces.

And as the cooler weather rolled in, a new word entered our eating vocab: winterization. Set up by the Office of Nightlife & Culture, restaurants could apply for up to $6,000 in grant funding for tents, heaters, furniture, and more. At least $4 million was set aside for the program. The city extended the program through December.

Nevertheless, the industry still struggled. Blankets and heat lamps only offer so much warmth in the winter chill, and the move to 25% indoor dining capacity was a death knell to many on-edge businesses.

According to the Restaurant Association of Metro Washington, as reported by WAMU, as of November, about 100 restaurants permanently shut their doors in D.C. Sales are down more than 50% compared to the same time in 2019.

As much as there was a reckoning in the industry, there were some bright spots. Innovative eateries like Shibuya in Adams Morgan, Taqueria Xochi on U Street, El Cielo in NoMa, and Jackie at Dacha in Navy Yard all opened their doors.

The restaurant industry is not out of the wintry woods yet. More restaurants will surely close, while others will rebrand and refresh to offer dishes and cuisine that make more sense in the pandemic context. While 2020 might have taken the sheen off of the brilliance of the city’s restaurant scene, 2021 looks to bring back our dining scene stronger than ever.

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