Indoor dining has returned to D.C. What does that mean for its gay bars and restaurants?
Back in December, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office paused indoor dining, and extended the ban through Jan. 22. The city has now returned to limited Phase Two activities, meaning that restaurants can allow indoor dining at 25% capacity or no more than 250 people, whichever is fewer. In a tweet, John Falcicchio of the mayor’s office called it the “Inauguration Pause.”
Having endured this complete ban on indoor dining, gay bar and restaurant owners across the city are expressing cautious optimism about moving forward.
During Phase Two, establishments made significant changes to schedules and offerings. Several reduced days and hours of operations, both on their own accord and following the mayor’s requirement that no alcohol be consumed after 10 p.m. For example, for several weeks, Pitchers moved to open earlier on weekends to counter the earlier closing hours. During the indoor dining ban, the bar opened only on the weekends. And for nearly all establishments across the city, making reservations is a must. Trade, Dirty Goose, Pitchers, and JR.’s, among others, all require reservations for a limit of 90-minute blocks.
At the beginning of the winter, several bars took advantage of the city’s grant program for winterization. JR.’s added tents, outdoor fencing, and several heaters. Jesse Jackson of JR.’s expressed thanks to the local 17th Street area Commissioner Randy Downs for assisting his bar with constructing its “streatery.” Nearby Annie’s Paramount Steakhouse greatly extended its outdoor seating options, with extensive new heated and covered tables. In Adams Morgan, Pitchers covered its own Streatery patio and added heaters. Trade also added several heaters to its own back patio. Dirty Goose set up fire pits under tents on U Street, as well as rooftop propane heaters.
Justin Parker of Dirty Goose says that it was only because of the large amount of outdoor space that his bar has been able to stay open. For Ed Bailey, owner of Trade and Number Nine, his bars offer contrasting stories. While outdoor dining has gone very well at Trade, he temporarily closed Number Nine because of its limited outdoor space.
Still, owners reported that because there have been so many changes, keeping up with regulations has been a tricky task. Co-founder Bryan van den Oever of Red Bear Brewing says that his hours and offerings “depend on what the mayor does. We will stay open as long as we can to meet our community’s needs.” He said that when in-person dining was closed, the bar’s “operations continued by ramping up pickup and delivery options.” He did note that “we’ve found that most people would rather be out on our patios… but we make our indoor space as clean, distanced, and welcoming as possible and we enforce a strict mask mandate inside and out.”
Pitchers and sister bar ALOHO began to offer more virtual events to bring in crowds. Jo McDaniel of ALOHO notes that “ALOHO hosted a virtual NYE party, with 150 tickets, which is much more than we expected. We have a robust calendar of virtual events until we’re open again.”
Similarly, Anthony Aligo, co-owner of Barkada Wine Bar, also pivoted to additional options to stay afloat. He began a monthly wine club, and like many, streamlined the in-house menus to make preparations easier on staff. The bar also increased retail shopping online and inside the store.
Through these challenges, owners and managers across D.C. signaled that the adversity has brought them together. Jackson of JR.’s said that gay bars are in a “unique situation but we’ve all come together and had discussions about mandates about how to survive. It’s been a very communal situation. But gay bars have huge customer support, whether it’s going to a takeout window and getting a drink or another extra tip.”
Van den Oever echoed the sentiment, noting that “luckily, the LGBTQ+ community is loyal and used to adversity, so we do think some of the daily business is coming in that form to help us get through this. We’re so grateful for the love and solidarity.”
And Bailey of Trade and Number Nine expressed gratitude to those who still brave the chill. “We still see a steady stream of amazingly loyal and generous customers.”
While January was the most complicated month yet to try to operate a business in D.C., he’s optimistic for the future. “We would like to be open in some sort of ‘normal’ fashion,” he says, “but we also like to be doing the right thing: offering a space for people to be, giving our staff a chance to make some money while keeping them safe, maintaining a healthy environment, and generating revenue. We hope that with the new administration, we can hear from new leadership, embrace a new, cohesive, national strategy to deal with the virus, get to the business of vaccinating people, and start to make significant strides toward life beyond the pandemic.”