When buzzy Burmese restaurant Thamee reopens for on-site dining on H Street NE this week, there will be no more waiters to pour customers’ water, debone whole fish tableside, or answer questions about a Southeast Asian menu that’s unique in D.C. Amid an industry-wide labor shortage and the lingering threat posed by a rapidly spreading delta variant of the novel coronavirus, Thamee’s owners have ordered a wholesale change from fine dining to fast casual.
Since D.C. lifted pandemic-induced restrictions for restaurants in late May, the partners at the restaurant have remained patient, preferring to stick with takeout and observe how others handled reopening rather than reinstating the full-service model that helped bring them national acclaim before the global health crisis. What they saw helped lead them toward an adaptation that they hope is their last, at least for a while.
“I would rather have fast, friendly, casual service than service that just doesn’t hit the mark,” co-owner Simone Jacobson says. “We want these doors open, and this is how we think this is sustainable, regardless of what changes may come.”
Thamee is hosting a couple invitation-only dinners before opening to the public on Friday, July 30. Customers will order at a counter and carry trays lined with banana leaves to a renovated upstairs dining room outfitted with an outdoor patio. The open kitchen downstairs will be separated from the majority of diners, but Thamee will reserve a few seats on the ground floor for customers with limited mobility. QR codes positioned at the tables upstairs will allow people to order more food and drinks that they’ll pick up themselves.
Eric Wang, the Thamee partner who leads many financial and administrative decisions, says he began to think seriously about what indoor dining would look like late in the spring, when President Joe Biden stated a goal of administering vaccines to 70 percent of adults by July 4. While other restaurants began returning to pre-pandemic norms, Wang says he saw how much trouble they were having recruiting workers from a labor pool that’s steadily shrunk as people reevaluated the low pay, poor hours, and toxic behavior that surrounds professional kitchens.
“There was just no way we could execute the same service that we did before,” says Wang, who has relocated to Philadelphia for a cheaper cost of living and proximity to his partner’s career. Jacobson, meanwhile, has decamped to Mexico, fulfilling her operations duties remotely.
In Washington, Thamee will have four people in the kitchen, including executive chef and partner Jocelyn Law-Yone, new chef de cuisine Alexis Soto Raymundo, and two line cooks that have stayed on throughout the COVID-19 crisis. The workers will continue to benefit from the restaurant’s “flat 30 policy,” a no-tipping philosophy that bakes in an additional 30 percent to the restaurants costs, feeding into workers’ pay, covering health care, and funding paid time off. Those changes are reflected in the prices listed on the menu, Wang says.
When Wang and general manager Jordan Lee approached Law-Yone, about making the switch to fast-casual, she agreed it was the best move they could make. “We go to restaurants, and it’s really kind of sad,” she says. “You see chairs on tables still, people not ready.” Now, after gamely experimenting with takeout, assemble-at-home “Burma Boxes,” and a sandwich pop-up, Law-Yone will direct a kitchen that aims to complete orders within 10 minutes.
To meet that mandate, the chef’s summer menu includes new small plates that mimic street food, like spicy skewers of grilled shrimp or lemongrass pork meatballs served with a tamarind and fermented black bean dipping sauce. Both of those items come on a new $35 sampler platter that also includes two orders of naan, pickled mixed vegetables like tangy mustard greens and carrots doused in chile powder, and pieces of buthee (Burmese gourd) fried in a puffy, slightly chewy batter that folds in feta cheese.
Law-Yone, 68, describes all of Thamee’s pandemic experiences as “doing the monkey dance.” Throughout the public health crisis and before, the grandmother has been the heartbeat of the restaurant, impressing her staff with her upbeat attitude and resolve.
“Honestly, for all of us here, we ask ourselves, ‘How do we keep up with her?’ Mentally, emotionally, even physically,” says Lee, a finalist for a local Rammy award this year.
Throughout the public health crisis and before, the chef was heartbeat of the restaurant and a quick-moving inspiration to her staff. Law-Yone, who is Jacobson’s mother, embarked on her professional cooking career after previous lives as a travel agent and art teacher. She led the culinary direction for Toli Moli, the group’s former falooda stall and Burmese bodega inside Union Market, too.
As an immigrant from Yangon (formerly Rangoon), Law-Yone says the hardships she’s already endured have helped add perspective during the pandemic. While trying to keep the restaurant afloat, which only happened thanks to a number of grants and assistance programs, Law-Yone has also had to watch a military coup in her home country (now called Myanmar) and worried for herself as violence against Asian elders has risen across the country. She learned to put on a brave face from her mother, and she says she doesn’t want to greet FaceTime calls from her granddaughter with “doom and gloom.”
Both Wang and Jacobson insist that the latest menu is Law-Yone’s best yet, because she’s deploying bolder flavors instead of trying to make every customer happy. The restaurant has been through so much in the past year and a half that the people left working inside say they can’t help but feel fearless.