Eleven months have passed since Dallas dining rooms closed in response to the arrival of the coronavirus. Some of them still haven’t reopened.
A small group of restaurant owners have declined to resume dine-in service, instead sticking to takeout, curbside pickup, delivery or outdoor patios. Most of them operate very small businesses and are guided by concern for their employees’ and customers’ health.
That stance is backed up by science that suggests we should still be avoiding indoor dining. The government of Washington, D.C., found that over a four-month span, 14% of the district’s virus outbreaks took place inside restaurants and bars. A study by the University of California, San Francisco, found that cooks work the single most dangerous job of the pandemic, with bakers in fourth place, “chefs and head cooks” in 11th and bartenders 24th.
With this information in mind, I called seven Dallas restaurant owners who have kept their dining rooms closed since March. Two of them, Lucia’s Jennifer Uygur and Taco y Vino’s Jimmy Contreras, said that they haven’t had a single employee get sick, and they believe that their cautious approach (along with good fortune) is a reason why.
As a food writer and diner, I fully support these restaurants’ continued closures, and I haven’t eaten inside a restaurant in months. In the words of the New Yorker’s Helen Rosner, “There’s no excuse for eating indoors at a restaurant right now that doesn’t ultimately boil down to ‘I really want to.’”
The question I asked these seven restaurant owners is about what comes next: Given that more people are getting vaccinated, how will they decide when it’s time to safely reopen their dining rooms?
Some owners cited specific benchmarks, like vaccination rates. Others aren’t sure how they will decide. Here, alphabetically by restaurant, are their answers.
Jennifer Uygur, co-owner, Lucia
You have asked probably one of the most challenging questions because I am unable to answer it in a vacuum. We’ve thought about it an astounding amount. I don’t have a good and quick answer.
That’s one of the reasons for the decision we made about Lucia [moving it to a new space with a dedicated to-go counter], because we truly couldn’t imagine how long we could keep treading water. There are so many factors that we go over and over in our heads. You’re kind of making it up as you go along. Is it [reopening] when your staff is vaccinated? Then I’m still going to be masked up until I know I can’t be a carrier of the disease. The people who are willing to come to your restaurant, do I own that? If we’re vaccinated and we open, we could be spraying down tables with customers present next to them. Is that what we want in Lucia, spraying down tables next to people eating and drinking? So I can’t answer that question in a vacuum.
Lucia sells meals to go, ordered in advance and packaged with reheating instructions.
Misti Norris, chef-owner, Petra and the Beast
I don’t think there is any definitive answer of what is the right way. Even though we’re getting vaccinated, there’s still so much unknown. This whole situation has been evolving week by week. I don’t think it's going to be something that’s necessarily thought out; I think it’s going to just organically happen. Once we decide to open back up to the public, based on my staff and the public’s comfort and safety, it will unravel kind of the way everything has.
Petra and the Beast serves takeout “Take Home the Beast” family-style meals on weekends and will soon debut a casual to-go menu called Rainbowcat. A very-limited-seating Saturday dinner takes place indoors or outdoors depending on the weather.
Andrew Savoie, chef-owner, Resident Taqueria
That [decision] will be collectively as a team. The reason why I’m closed is really because of my staff. That’s the big number one thing. I could open up a couple seats inside, but I’m a small restaurant. If I create three [tables], really, what does that do? It’s going to be frustrating to everybody. Either you’re all in or you’re all out, and we’re all out, until we feel as a team that we’re ready for this. As an owner I don’t make those decisions by myself. It’s all about my employees. If I have teammates who go down, we’re going to sacrifice what we’re doing.
Resident Taqueria allows two customers inside at a time, and serves food either to go or on its patio.
Brent Reaves, co-owner, Smokey John’s Bar-B-Que
We’re going to start watching how the numbers begin to descend. If we see an aggressive drop in the number of cases, then we’ll reconvene with our executive team and consider whether to open up. Every month we pretty much have that same discussion, but right now the numbers aren’t dropping enough.
We’re not a major chain, the level of capital backing us is not the same as those guys, so we have to take stronger precautions to ensure the safety of our team. That’s why we shut our dining room down. But when we see a drastic drop in numbers, we’ll move to 50% occupancy inside, and slowly move back from there.
Smokey John’s currently serves takeout, curbside and catering orders.
Jimmy Contreras, owner, Taco y Vino
I’ve always left it up to the discretion of the servers. If they’re not comfortable, we won’t do it. So that’s going to kind of be whenever we’re comfortable for ourselves, when Taco y Vino as a whole is ready. I do prefer to keep our dining room closed. But when the weather is bad, we might as well shut down, because we’re all outdoors.
I don’t want to Leon Lett it. Getting right there to the goal line and then dropping the ball.
Taco y Vino serves food on its patio, in its backyard and for takeout. During the current extreme cold weather, limited seating is temporarily available inside.
Julien Eelsen, owner, Whisk Crepes Cafe
I think from an operations standpoint we won’t be open until the fall. September, October, most likely. I will reopen my dining room when everything can reopen, when we see concert halls and sport arenas reopening. When they say restaurants can legally reopen 100%, I’m not going to reopen. As far as vaccinations — when we reach 40% vaccinated people, maybe that is when we would reopen, 40 or 50%.
Whisk Crepes built a front patio last fall after months of being to-go only.
Todd Hung, owner, Wu Wei Din Chinese Cuisine
We plan to open up for dining when all our kitchen workers have been vaccinated to keep customers and workers safe.
Wu Wei Din serves takeout meals through curbside service in its parking lot.
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