D.C. is testing outdoor dining in the street for the first time
This weekend, Adams Morgan’s main drag of 18th Street NW will ban vehicular traffic to let restaurants and bars spill out into the street. D.C.’s pilot “streatery” — a term the city is using to designate no-traffic zones from sidewalk cafes — marks a test to see whether the strip can safely operate as a dining plaza during the COVID-19 crisis. While the city has allowed restaurants to take over sidewalks, alleys, and parking lots since May 29, the District has yet to green light a fully shut-down street until now.
Business on 18th Street NW between Columbia Road and Kalorama Road are all eligible to serve food and drinks in the street from Friday to Sunday, with sales stopping at midnight. Some already plan to close a few hours early to encourage the nighttime crowd to honor social distancing protocols. Customers must stay seated while eating and drinking.
“The cutoff is when people stop behaving appropriately. We don’t want to participate if it gets to something that doesn’t look right,” says SongByrd co-owner Joe Lapan. “I think this first weekend will be a little vibe check and test run. Like anything we are feeling things out one day at a time.”
D.C.’s Department of Transportation made it easier for businesses to join the pilot program at the eleventh hour. The city typically mandates that all “sidewalk cafes” present a Certificate of Insurance (COI) proving they have obtained coverage for general liability, auto liability (if applicable), and even umbrella liability. The Adams Morgan BID worked with DDOT to waive the D.C. insurance requirement, asking that restaurants submit a COI with their current coverage. Should the pilot extend to subsequent weekends — which is looking likely — restaurants will have to obtain additional coverage for extra seats in the street.
“I hope it’s not a barrier to participation,” says Lapan.
He’s been a huge proponent of the traffic shutdown in Adams Morgan since the idea was first floated a few months ago. On Tuesday, city officials announced the pilot was officially a go for this weekend — leaving just days to work out kinks related to staffing and outdoor setups.
“You can do X amount of prep, but until you know it’s confirmed there is only so much you can do,” he says. “On the logistical level, a lot of businesses are scrambling a bit.”
Jo-Jo Valenzuela, the owner of the Game sports bar and Tiki on 18th, posted a call on social media for servers, bartenders, and hosts to handle more volume. He says tables he ordered this week won’t arrive in time, so he’s making do with just a handful out front this weekend.
He’ll maintain half-occupancy upstairs and open all 10 seats on a tiki-themed patio out back. This month, the two-level venture released a lineup of Filipino sweet refreshments known as samalamig to go along with the the Game’s Filipino bar food.
Here’s what to expect at other participating businesses:
- Grand Duchess: The new home of Lucky Buns chef-owner Alex McCoy’s sub pop-up Hoagie Boyz will double its outdoor seat count this weekend, adding four more tables (two adjacent to the street, and two more next door on the future Wingo’s patio). In addition to amaro and bottled Negronis, Philly-style subs can be paired with new on-site brews (Tecate, Peroni, and Sierra Nevada Hazy Little Thing), along with frosé and frozen palomas.
- SpacyCloud: The vegan venture is big on art, so owner Tatiana Kolina plans to augment outdoor ambiance with a live painter. “You can’t have live music but at least you can have live art,” she says. To celebrate the “streatery” — which grants her six extra outdoor tables — she’s adding Russian pirozhki (bread) on the menu and plans to stay open a few extra hours through midnight. “It feels like more people are coming out later nowadays, especially in Adams Morgan,” she says. Should the alfresco option continue, she’ll add more Eastern European dishes to pair with a lineup of hard-to-find beers from the same region.
- SongByrd Music House: The vinyl-slinging cafe, which just teamed up with AdMo neighbor Nicecream to make spiked milkshakes, normally has room for just one to two tables on its patio. This weekend, 10 more dotted with electric tea candles will join the outside lineup. Each will be equipped with a QR code-enabled feature (GoTab), which lets guests place contactless orders on their phones.
- Roofers Union: The beer hall’s takeout window will also receive sit-down orders to “help limit interactions as much as possible,” says owner Dave Delaplaine. Hit dishes that aren’t takeout friendly — like its mussels — are back on the menu this weekend, as is mac and cheese. A weekend brunch brings sweet-and-savory waffles to the table. Unused tables from Roofers Union will be used to test out outdoor configurations during the inaugural weekend. “I’m excited to do this. It reminds me of places in New York and Europe,” he says. Its rooftop currently enforces a 75-minute table limit, but it’s TBD whether outdoor seating will also come with a time stamp. Along with bottled punches for one to four, the beer list will be shortened by a bit (to 9 varieties) to make sure brews stay fresh.
- League of Her Own: The gay sports bar is “a difficult space to socially distance,” says owner Jo McDaniel, so the ability to add six outdoor tables on the street is a big win. Tonight’s reopening at 5 p.m. brings alcoholic pops and frozen vodka lemonade into the mix. Staffers equipped with Walkie Talkies will monitor the setup to ensure no one’s bringing outside drinks or violating social distancing protocols. “It’s a pilot program so there’s a lot of pressure as a business to really do it well and right so patrons feels safe,” she says.
Roofers Union owner Dave Delapliane also prays the public can cooperate.
“Please be responsible and please wear masks — we want this to last and not be a one-time thing,” he says.
Some establishments aren’t moving into the street for various reasons. Middle Eastern cocktail bar Green Zone is opting to instead borrow space from neighbor Life of Riley, which adds four times as many outdoor seats.
“So we now have just about as many tables as we can manage, and fortunately it’s on the sidewalk, which is my preference,” says owner Chris Hassaan Francke.
He’s still looking forward to the boost of pedestrian traffic, prepping extra orders of its hit mint lemonades in anticipation.
Grand Central’s street space out front is occupied by a crosswalk, so owner Brian Vasile says his participation likely isn’t feasible. He’s maintaining 50-percent capacity inside and 16 patio seats where he plans to start serving his top-selling wings an hour early (5 p.m.).
And some well-known AdMo spots, like Jack Rose, miss the geographic cutoff point. Jack Rose’s roof is open on a reservation basis, however, and a takeout sidewalk window slings food, frozen cocktails, and bottles of whiskey.
Should the concept continue after its pilot weekend, restaurants must weigh whether insurance coverage associated with adding street seats is feasible. The cost could be in the hundreds or thousands of dollars. The fluctuating price is dependent on various factors, including an establishment’s revenue and seat count. Digital insurance platform CoverWallet made the following estimates for a full-service restaurant in D.C. with five to nine employees, including $1,201 for umbrella coverage.
“We are trying to figure out if it’s even worth it … the situation is tough enough right now,” says Johnny Pistola’s GM Jordan Askarinam.
SpacyCloud is still waiting to hear from its adjuster what the added cost may be.
“Hopefully it’s not going to be extremely expensive,” Kolina says. “I explained to them we are a startup and small business.”