Two years ago, there was a line that stretched down the block at Kaliwa, the restaurant from prominent D.C.-area chef Cathal Armstrong that focuses on multiple cuisines from Asia. Its prime location at the Southwest Waterfront, coupled with a menu full of flavors from the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and Korea, drew tourists and locals alike to the shiny new Wharf development. They could eat at new businesses from a handful of proven D.C. chefs, stroll by the Washington Channel while taking in the sight of boats anchored in an adjacent marina, or attend a concert in the massive Anthem music venue.
Lately, those lines have all but disappeared. The COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting quarantine, and the subsequent apprehension about dining out have turned the once-bustling neighborhood into a shell of its former glory. Like restaurants across D.C. — and the entire country — eating and drinking establishments across the riverside strip are feeling the squeeze. With colder months ahead, chefs and restaurant owners report feeling a sense of dread when it comes to the future.
For restaurants across the waterfront neighborhoods of D.C., the rent is expensive, dependence on warmer seasons is high, and diners are generally drawn by attractions that have been rendered nonexistent by the pandemic.
“There’s barely any tourism at the Wharf right now; there are no concerts at Anthem, and at this point, we’re bringing in about 23 percent of the revenue we were last year,” Armstrong said earlier this fall. That’s particularly problematic because the summer months generally provided the financial cushion that waterfront restaurants needed going into the winter. “Who wants to walk along the water when it’s 0 degrees outside?” Armstrong asked.
Justin Cox, the founder and CEO of Atlas Brew Works, was planning on having a huge opening day at the new taproom and production facility the D.C. brewery built close to Nationals Park in Navy Yard, which sits on the water in the opposite quadrant from the Wharf. Instead, Major League Baseball played its regular season without fans, and Atlas opened for takeout in April before adding picnic tables in July. Atlas’s partnership with Andy’s Pizza, a local brand specializing in New York-style pies, has helped draw stressed-out customers who are turning to familiar foods during the public health crisis.
“In COVID times, you need to be more accessible,” Andy’s Pizza owner Andy Brown says. “Luckily, beer and pizza is pandemic-approved and -proof.”
Still, the company shrunk its menu, eliminating some specialty pizzas for fear that expensive, imported ingredients may not move at the same pace they did before. The tried-and-true pepperoni pizza, with the addition of imported 24-month Parmigiano Reggiano, is still a dependable crowd-pleaser.
Even for pizza purveyors, outdoor dining is not necessarily a fix. Restaurants with limited outdoor space (and expansive indoor seating) are particularly challenged. The patio at the Bluejacket brewery, for example, holds only a quarter of the customers it can fit inside. As a result of the brewery’s popularity, wait times for a table are often north of an hour. In September, sales were about half of what they were last year, even though Bluejacket offers canned beer to go.
Greg Engert, a partner and beverage director at Bluejacket, calls the pandemic “a disaster we never imagined.”
Before the crisis, can sales were only about 5 percent of total beer purchases. That number now represents more than 90 percent of Bluejacket’s alcohol revenue as more and more customers opt to take beer home instead of waiting for a patio table.
Similarly, Kaliwa’s patio seats only a small portion of its indoor capacity, and although the team has been able to slightly expand its patio capacity (by a margin of four tables), Armstrong notes that “everyone wants to have dinner on the weekends, and everyone wants to have dinner at the same time.”
Small parties can present a particular challenge when communal seating isn’t an option. Atlas has seen plenty of nights when four different couples claim tables that can seat up to six.
Just to stay in business through typically booming summer months, businesses by the water have had to make the same expensive changes as every other restaurant.
“We’ve had to retrain our staff to adapt to different types of technology like mobile-only ordering, QR codes, and contactless payment,” says Dmitri Chekaldin, a co-owner at Dacha beer garden and attached New American restaurant Jackie.
The bustling Navy Yard beer garden opened with room for 700 customers outdoors and has struggled to enforce social-distancing requirements. In recent months, Dacha has been cited by ABRA (the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration) a number of times for allowing crowds to get too dense. “It’s been hard to adjust,” Chekaldin says. “We want people to feel like they can have a good time, but we also have to be responsible and keep our customers safe — it’s a balancing act.”
This isn’t to say that restaurants in these neighborhoods can’t adapt. Chloe, a destination in Navy Yard for Mediterranean and Asian small plates from chef-owner Haidar Karoum, has leaned into brunch service, attracting a large number of diners with a range of dishes in the $10-to-$15 range. “Restaurant owners are accustomed to uncertainty,” Karoum says. “We have to be able to think on our feet.”
With social-distancing measures in place, Chloe has been packing its patio. The restaurant is still seeing steady business with half-capacity indoor dining, despite the fact that interior spaces create the ideal environment for COVID-19 to spread.
The city of D.C. is doing what it can to help push diners outdoors. On September 21, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a $4 million investment in local restaurants by way of the new “Streatery” Winter Ready Grant program. Restaurants can apply to receive grants of up to $6,000 to purchase winterization materials such as tents, heaters, propane, lighting, furniture, advertising costs, and the like.
Chloe has secured grant money to buy furniture, propane tanks, and heat lamps, which were tough to find with such high demand. Karoum says acquiring them “was a little tricky,” but his director of operations came through by finding a supplier 100 miles away in Richmond, Virginia.
Armstrong’s team also participated in the “streatery” grant, purchasing propane heaters and attempting to reinforce Kaliwa’s outdoor tent to keep it cold weather-proof for as long as possible. Armstrong says he’s also been surprised in recent weeks at some diners’ newfound willingness to eat indoors.
At Bluejacket, Engert has expressed measured optimism for the months ahead because carryout, delivery, and retail beer sales have continued to grow. Bluejacket is bringing in heaters and blankets, and even adding warm drinks to the menu.
As an unexpected side effect of the pandemic, Bluejacket has started sending small shipments of cans, and in some cases kegs, to states across the Eastern Seaboard, including North Carolina, Massachusetts, and Virginia, with plans to get beer out to Washington state and Louisiana soon.
Restaurants remain unsure of how much traffic the coming months will bring, leading to questions around staffing, scheduling, and budgets for takeout supplies and personal protective equipment.
“You’ve heard the word ‘unprecedented’ 100,000 times,” Armstrong said. “We don’t really know what’s going to happen. Having said that, people still need to eat, and we’re expecting an uptick in takeout and delivery. We’re also starting to cater more, host more Zoom events like spring roll classes and virtual wine tastings, and trying to get creative.”
Ultimately, Armstrong says, “We should be in an okay place to weather the winter, and we just hope that it’s enough to get us to some green shoots when the spring arrives.”