Updated Monday, March 16, 2020: Chef Jose Andres announced Sunday that all ThinkFoodGroup restaurants in D.C. would cease regular service. Staring Tuesday, March 17, most of them will transition into “community kitchens” offering reduced prices on takeout. Neighborhood Restaurant Group also shut down dine-in services across its 22 properties in the D.C. area and New York, moving to takeout and delivery.
D.C. area restaurants large and small have scrambled to make potential customers feel safe this week while the novel coronavirus outbreak reached pandemic status, and government officials, employers, educators, and religious figures in the D.C. area have shut down much of everyday life. Formerly innocuous doorknobs have turned into avatars for COVID-19, so two of the area’s largest hospitality groups are working to mitigate anxieties at the front door.
Clyde’s Restaurant Group, which has held a hand washing competition for employees for 20 years, is asking some workers to act as de facto doormen at eight area locations of Clyde’s — its casual flagship known for burgers, crab cakes, and oysters — and other big-name local brands like Old Ebbitt Grill, a White House-adjacent tourist attraction that’s annually one of the top five highest grossing independent restaurants in the country. Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which operates 22 locations for 18 brands across D.C., Virginia, Maryland, and New York City, is working to install foot pedals that will provide hands-free access to their venues.
Like their peers across the city and the country, both behemoth groups are ramping up sanitation efforts, adding or expanding delivery services, and prioritizing communication with their employees across a wide network of bars and restaurants. A large swath of D.C. restaurants have distributed emails and social media posts full of vows to follow updated sanitation guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization. Many have installed new hand sanitization stations and trained waiters on intensified hygiene measures akin to doctors scrubbing in for surgery.
There is no evidence that shows the virus, which spreads through respiratory droplets (coughing, sneezing), is transmitted through food. As of Friday morning, D.C. proper had 10 confirmed positive cases. The city and its surrounding states had declared a state of emergency, and D.C.’s department of health had suggested canceling events of 1,000 people or more.
The well-oiled Clyde’s chain, which also includes the lucrative Hamilton downtown, iconic Georgetown bar the Tombs, and and nearby fine-dining institution 1789, is employing “quick, perhaps short-term changes,” director of communications Molly Quigley says. The 2,000-person company is placing employees at the front door and in bathrooms to clean door handles on a customer-by-customer basis. A “clean team” is dedicated to wiping down railings, handles, and surfaces. Clyde’s also extended paid sick time to all of its employees this week.
”All of these efforts not only help keep everyone safe, but they also help keep shifts available,” Quigley says.
Ideas on how to best navigate the unprecedented situation have been flooding in from all departments, from “dishwasher to director,” she says. Self-serve condiments like ketchup and mustard are now dispensed in ramekins by the kitchen. Sweetener for coffee and iced tea arrives on a prep plate. Disposable menus have replaced glossy ones, and servers are asking sit-down customers to browse menus on their individual phones. To maximize distance between seated customers, Clyde’s hosts will intentionally spread out diners and remove a couple of tables at each restaurant where possible.
To keep kitchens busy during uncertain times, Clyde’s began offering delivery through third-party apps for the first time this week. They’re using Caviar for D.C. locations. Virginia and Maryland are coming soon to DoorDash. Online ordering for pick-up — a feature added last year — is available at all locations except 1789.
Neighborhood Restaurant Group is also prioritizing delivery. Chief Strategy Officer Amber Pfau says the company has called “every single delivery service” since last week to identify the best partner. Over the next week or so, streamlined delivery menus for Caviar and DoorDash will appear on the websites of all of NRG’s restaurants. That will mark a first for three of its venues: Turkish tavern-style Hazel in Shaw, Old Town American destination Vermillion, and Iron Gate, the romantic Dupont dining room full of Greek and Mediterranean dishes from chef Anthony Chittum. There will be a few concessions, of course, including taking oysters and peel-and-eat shrimp off delivery menus.
“Tony told me he couldn’t put the panna cotta on the [delivery] menu,” Pfau says. “He can’t make the panna cotta travel well.”
Planet Wine, an NRG-owned shop attached to its home base in the quaint Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, is in the process of acquiring a permit to deliver its wine and beer.
Third-party delivery is also coming to Penn Quarter’s year-old Punjab Grill, which will put its chicken makhni in tomato and cashew sauce on GrubHub.
Leave it to the glam-packed, detail-oriented restaurant — named Eater DC’s Best Design of 2019 — to stylize sanitation. Dishes holding compressed towelettes are now served at their mother-of-pearl tables. Servers expand them for guests using tea pots full of rose water. Starting this week, all staff members will also don disposable black latex gloves. Punjab Grill has also added bathroom attendants to clean handles and knobs after each use.
Chef-owner Amy Brandwein, a perennial James Beard finalist at Centrolina in CityCenter, says she’ll soon have menu items up for delivery (via Caviar) for the first time, too. Her menu changes everyday, but she says she’s thinking of customer favorites’ she’ll keep consistent for delivery.
In Clarendon, restaurateur Ivan Iricanin is working to translate his popular bottomless small plates menus from Balkan mainstay Ambar and Mexican Buena Vida/TTT to a delivery model that translates the experience to customers’ homes. He’s locked in a subscription model, expected to launch next week, that includes a package of 10 five-course meals. The price isn’t set yet, but Iricanin says he’s envisioning a price point that works out to around $15 per meal.
Jose Andres’ ThinkFoodGroup maintains a huge presence in the foot traffic-heavy Penn Quarter neighborhood with Zaytinya, Jaleo, Oyamel, and China Chilcano — high-volume venues dedicated to Greek, Spanish, Mexican, and Peruvian cuisines — as well modernist minibar, one of only two D.C. restaurants with two Michelin stars. TFG says it’s removing tables from its properties to free up space; monitoring employee travel as a precautionary measure; and installing foot pedals on doors for hands-free entry and exit.
The parent group of downtown’s Founding Farmers, ranked as OpenTable’s most-booked restaurant in the country multiple times, is preparing for more vacant seats than usual. The co-op-owned chain, which maintains nine Mid-Atlantic locations, has implemented additional sanitization efforts. Owner Dan Simons says the scare has already had an impact on sales.
Capitol Hill’s Union Pub, a reliable and affordable hangout for the political set, just retooled its sharable platters — a sanitary no-no these days — into individual-sized portions. There’s also wrapped paper straws, no more table condiments, and happy hour all day long. In order to accommodate isolated desk-side demand, Union Pub just joined UberEats.
Even while President Donald Trump has repeatedly downplayed the threat the public health, his hotel downtown has dramatically scaled back its weekly “cheese night” in the lobby, replacing an open-air buffet with a few carts covered by glass casings.
There’s clear demand for takeout, too. On Wednesday, half of sales at Carmine’s, the cavernous Penn Quarter outpost for the New York chain that sells heaping, family-style portions of Italian-American standards, were either to-go, delivery, or catered orders.
At least one restaurant is taking a humorous tone to attract customers. CR NoMa, a Middle Eastern-leaning deli in the mixed-used Northeast neighborhood packed with millennial residents and federal workers, has signage out branding its happy hour as a meeting for “germaphobes anonymous.”
With lots of D.C. workers being nudged to work from home, NoMa’s normally-large constituency for food trucks looked particularly sparse during peak lunch hour on Thursday.
The Clyde’s group says business has yet to take a significant hit, but it’s prepared to take losses, especially on concert revenues. On Thursday, the group made the decision to cancel or postpone all of its upcoming ticketed events at the Hamilton and the Soundry, as well as an oyster roast at Clyde’s at Mark Center on Saturday, March 21.
Clyde’s Gallery Place is connected to Capital One Arena, which will be empty of high-profile tenants from the Washington Wizards and Capitals because the NBA and NHL seasons have been suspended.
The NCAA has canceled March Madness, calling off its signature championship tournaments for men’s and women’s basketball, so Alexandria Restaurant Partners won’t be hosting its Basketball Bracket Bonanza this weekend at newly acquired Joe Theismann’s Restaurant. Long-running annual fundraisers like DC Brau’s HopFest (for DC Brewers’ Guild) and the Brewer’s Ball at the Anthem (for Cystic Fibrosis) are also no longer happening.
While no reports have yet surfaced of D.C. restaurants closing, Truxton Circle’s year-old sustainable wine shop, Domestique, will temporarily close to the public starting Friday, March 13, and shift to a pickup-only model for the interim. Shifts will be maintained for Domestique’s whole staff, but they have the option to stay at home.
“This feels like the right thing to do ... our team remains entirely symptom free but every order will be packed with gloves,” reads an email blast.
Customers can call ahead to grab wine orders at the door, and D.C. delivery is free for $75-and-up purchases. “We’ll be working the phones like ’80s bond traders,” the email says.