Virtual Menus, Online Waitlists Help DC Restaurants Reopen Dining With Social Distancing

"We really don't know what to expect"

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Washington, D.C., has allowed restaurants to throw open the doors to their patios on Friday, letting them offer some version of in-person dining for the first time since the end of March.

The restaurants are under strict rules: Tables must be 6 feet apart, no more than 6 people at a table and only outdoor areas can open. Don't be surprised if you're asked for your name and phone number so you can be contacted in case of a coronavirus exposure.

In D.C., where real estate doesn't come cheap, many are turning to new technology to make social distancing possible.

Josh Phillips, part-owner and general manager at Espita in Shaw, bet that Friday would be a strange day.

"We came up with a service model where guests have essentially zero interaction with our staff, which I think is essential," Phillips said.

One manager will preside over the patio, direct customers where to sit and remind people of social distancing rules, like requirements to stay seated, not move tables and wear masks while walking to the bathroom.

But much of the experience will be customer-directed. Every table will be stamped with a QR code and a URL so diners will order and pay through an app or website. An employee will call out their name when it's time to pick up the food.


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The 6-foot distance between tables doesn't leave enough room for food runners to pass by safely, Phillips said.

A restaurant in Ocean City found a new way to make customers keep a social distance. Fish Tales debuted about a dozen “bumper tables."

Espita has won over some new regulars, even as overall business fell off to the coronavirus pandemic. And when the restaurant announced their reopening, there was a wave of excitement.

"As soon as we posted on Instagram, I got an onslaught of messages," Phillips said.

Phillips said the restaurant secured a paycheck protection loan and has already been able to keep on 26 staff, more than needed to run the restaurant.

He expects to bring in an additional $8,000 a week in revenue, even though Espita can't morally bring back full service until there's a vaccine or cure, Phillips said. Before the pandemic, Espita could serve hundreds of customers a night. Now, the best-case scenario is 60 dining in.

Seven Reasons, a Latin American spot on 14th and W Streets NW, similarly will try to erase more contact between staff and diners.

Reservations can be made far in advance, and a $50 minimum must be pre-paid.

"The only way to make this profitable and to hire most of our staff, is by making sure every table spends a minimum. This minimum, however, is a lot lower than our average check per person," the restaurant said in a marketing email.

Bills will be paid with a simple card swipe and automatic 22% tip for the staff.

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Popular beer garden Dacha, with locations in Shaw and Navy Yard, is also turning to new technology to manage the flow of customers.

Everyone will have to get into a virtual line, using the Resy app, to wait for a table. Diners will have a two-hour time limit.

Restaurants have been starved for revenue and are eager to reopen, but adapting may have some growing pains.

"Well, it's hard to tell with a mask on, but we've been very excited," said Jonathan Langle, the manager of Bobby Van's Grill, at 12th Street and New York Avenue NW. "We really don't know what to expect."

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