Some outdoor dining restaurants back in business!
Soho's at Capitol Market, Olive Tree Cafe, The Block, The Lookout and Hot Diggity Dogs among those serving guests on patios and decks
The restaurants are open! The restaurants are open!
I mean, only some of them – and it’s limited to outdoor dining at that – but I’ve actually enjoyed both lunch and dinner out this week at some place other than my house.
That’s big news, y’all.
I know many restaurants and customers are still taking a “wait and see” approach to see how things go, which is certainly a wise move, but I still can’t contain my excitement that life as we knew it is slowly starting to resume.
As Soho’ at Capitol Market owner and manager Tracy Abdalla said in an article in Sunday’s Gazette-Mail, “It’s important that we do this. It’s getting back to a sense of normalcy. Dining out isn’t just getting something to eat, it’s creating memories, it’s creating feelings. There’s a reason people get together around the dinner table. We want to get back to that.”
Soho’s is one of a handful of local restaurants that reopened their outdoor dining areas this week, with approved social distancing and required safety protocols in place.
So is South Charleston’s Olive Tree Café, which expanded their outdoor footprint to add 6 feet of space between tables that can safely seat up to 50 diners spread throughout many tables.
“We’ve been taking every safety precaution we can while staying open for carryout and delivery from the beginning, so we’re just expanding that to our outside dining areas now,” said chef/owner Michael Jarrouj. “We’re erring on the side of being excessively cautious, but that’s exactly how we want to approach this new phase.”
When I asked him if he’s excited to be able to finally open his outdoor dining areas, he responded the same way other restaurant owners have. With a few seconds of silence.
“Am I excited, yes, but also a little nervous and apprehensive, to be honest. I’d say we’re cautiously optimistic, but know this isn’t going to be easy. We’re going to jump in the deep end and hope for the best this week, then see what changes we may need to make moving forward.”
That next phase may come as quickly as next week when restaurants are permitted to reopen indoor dining areas with limited capacity and other safety measures in place.
I stopped by the Olive Tree for dinner Monday to see how they (and customers) were navigating this new era, which was off to a not unwelcome slow start.
“We’ve had a few folks come and go throughout the day,” Jarrouj said, as I sipped a glorious IPA from a foam cup on the restaurant’s large patio.
When it came time to order, I passed over my usual favorites here (the shawarma, the Philly cheesesteak, the feta and olives) in favor of the new garlicky Sultan Wings, which are fire-roasted and tossed in cracked garlic with a lemon-olive oil-garlic aioli sauce that I now want to eat on every item at every meal. Maybe even brush my teeth with it.
I followed that snack with fire-roasted Mediterranean sea scallops (fresh, plump, juicy, never-frozen) served with a wonderful Greek salad, creamy hummus and pita.
Earlier that day, I popped by Soho’s for lunch, where all six outdoor tables were full and the outdoor market was absolutely abuzz with socially distanced crowds. The weather was gorgeous, all Soho’s employees were wearing masks, service was relatively quick (given it was the first day of reopening) and my lunch was fantastic.
It was hard not to get my usual favorite, the awesome Venetian Steak Salad, but I decided to try something I hadn’t before – a Chicken Artichoke Salad featuring blackened chicken breast, artichoke hearts, walnuts, roasted red peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and kalamata olives atop Romaine with a house vinaigrette.
It was a delicious light lunch on a gorgeous day. A gorgeous day eating out AT a restaurant.
I’m not going to lie, folks, it felt liberating to be out safely eating and drinking again.
• • •
Others, however, aren’t jumping back into the fray as quickly.
Although they continue to offer carryout service, downtown’s Ichiban and East End restaurants Tricky Fish and Starlings Coffee & Provisions have no plans to reopen their outdoor dining areas just yet. (In the same article mentioned above, Bluegrass Kitchen, Tricky Fish and Starlings owner Keeley Steele said limited outside seating and additional costs for staffing and safety gear make it not worth doing at this time.)
Black Sheep Burrito & Brews has been closed since March 24, something manager Kevin Madison says won’t change in the immediate future, even though the restaurant does have two outdoor seating areas.
“We have decided to take out time and do things right, tweaking up the menu and beefing up to-go options,” he told me. “We are in no hurry at the moment because we could only have maybe two tables on the Quarrier Street side and possibly three on Summers Street, plus people possibly gathering to wait. It’s just an unnecessary hassle right now.”
Despite having the largest outdoor dining area in the city, Mi Cocina de Amor on the West Side also isn’t opening up to table service just yet, although guests can take their already purchased meals outside to enjoy it there.
Owners Frank and Julia Gonzales said that was a tough decision, but one they stand by.
“Having the largest outdoor space in the city at Mi Cocina de Amor, it’s certainly a relief to be able to use it again. However, that being said, there’s so much more to it than simply doing it because we can,” Frank wrote in a Facebook post a few days ago.
Balancing safety and feasibility concerns, he said the restaurant has decided to not yet offer table service in its outdoor Margarita Garden, but will have a number of tables spaced out where customers can take their already-purchased carryout food outside to enjoy while they are there.
“We have also made the difficult decision to not sell alcoholic beverages in the beginning, as I feel it will promote an atmosphere which conflicts with our mission of simply offering a place outdoors in the sun for you and your family to enjoy your carryout meal timely, and allow someone else the space to do so also after you’re done,” he explained.
“We’re not trying to promote a “fiesta” atmosphere. That time will come, but we’re not anywhere near there yet.”
As much as I’d love to hang out with good friends, tasty food and frosty margaritas right now, I admire Mi Cocina’s “baby steps” approach right now.
As Frank said himself, that day will come.
• • •
Finally, the lack of available food supplies has forced popular Cross Lanes restaurant T&M Meats/WV Brick Oven Bistro to temporarily close its doors.
In a message to Facebook followers over the weekend, owner Ron Cole said “we held in there as long as we could” but at this time he’s not sure the restaurant would be able to stay open because he can’t get the food he needs.
“Just tried to place a $12,000 order with our supplier and all they have is $800 of it available,” he said in the post. “SCARY!” He added that the cost of meat he is able to get has “gone through the roof.”
That’s a concern Olive Tree Café’s Jarrouj has been echoing as well.
“I hate to be the fly in the ointment here, but I’ve been running around like Chicken Little saying the sky is falling for weeks,” he said. “I’ve read so many reports saying our meat supply is about to be the worst we’ve experienced since the Great Depression, and I’m already seeing it.”
He explained he tried ordering eight large cuts of corned beef for this week and could only get two.
“So now I’ve been making my own and trying to get my hands on anything else I can,” he added. “Produce and seafood seem to be fine, but getting meat is going to be a real problem. It’s going to be hard for restaurants – especially those that have been closed for weeks – to just pick up the phone and order the supplies they need.”
Man, our restaurants can’t seem to catch a break right now.
This is yet another reason we need to support them right now – and be extra patient if we experience limited availability and increased prices when we do.
I promised you, they’re busting it to do the best they can under the circumstances.
• • •
Steven Keith is a food writer and restaurant critic known as “The Food Guy” who writes a weekly column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail and has appeared in several state, regional and national culinary publications. Follow him online at www.wvfoodguy.com or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. He can be reached at 304-380-6096 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.