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Social distancing and lost revenues: Baltimore’s high-end restaurants do one pivot after another to avoid disaster

Inside the kitchen of Monarque, a high-end French restaurant from the Atlas Restaurant Group, chef Marc Hennessy is figuring out how to do fine dining in the middle of a pandemic. With the need for social distancing, there are fewer people to do more work. Suppliers may run out of basic ingredients like meat and radishes. After-dinner cheese carts and shared plates seem less luxe and more like a potential health hazard.

“You’ve got to rethink everything,” he said.

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For now, the Harbor East restaurant, with its marble table tops and velvet draped stage, sits empty, its grand opening delayed by the pandemic. When Monarque finally greets its first guests later this fall, it faces a fine dining landscape its architects could scarcely have imagined.

Business lunches and dinners and large-scale events have ground to a halt. Dress codes now require face masks, and coronavirus-wary guests may no longer wish to linger for multi-course meals. Many restaurants have shut down for months, leaving regulars to refresh their Facebook pages in search of updates. Some, like the Alexander Brown Restaurant downtown or Roy’s in Harbor East, have closed for good.

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Hennessy accepted the job in Baltimore at Monarque after his previous restaurant, Washington’s Rare Steakhouse, shut down for the pandemic and still hasn’t reopened. He had hoped it would come back after a few weeks, but with children to care for and a mortgage to pay, “I just couldn’t wait any longer.”

Marshall Weston, CEO of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, predicts 40% of the state’s restaurants will have closed by the end of the year. The ones that remain, he said, “are hanging on for dear life."

One drastic change has been the drop-off in business lunch and dinner guests as workers take to home offices and meetings happen over Zoom, not multi-course meals. The pinch has been acute in places like Harbor East and Downtown, dense with office buildings.

“It’s been huge,” said Tony Foreman, whose Foreman Wolf restaurant group owns high-end restaurants like Charleston and Cinghiale. The latter is an Italian restaurant in Harbor East he called “perfectly formulated for the business diner of the last 10 years," able to accommodate large groups of post-convention diners as well as client meetings. But those groups don’t exist at the moment, and it’s unclear if and when they’ll return.

“I think those things will be slow to come back because I think people have a little PTSD," Foreman said.

The loss of business traffic also has been bad news for fast casual eateries such as Bon Fresco, an Inner Harbor eatery owned by Phil Han. He shut down the cafe on the first floor of the Candler Building for months and isn’t optimistic about the prospects for reopening.

The owners of Monarque envision a sunnier future. Though many are still avoiding indoor dining, “I think they’ll come back,” said Alex Smith, founder of Atlas Restaurant Group, which owns 12 other eateries in Baltimore with more on the way.

At least, Smith hopes so. His business also faces a lawsuit and accusations of racism after a Black mom and her son were turned away from Ouzo Bay this summer.

Some restaurateurs have used the fallow period to reinvent themselves. When Magdalena reopens in October in the boutique Ivy Hotel, the menu will offer innovative takes on local classics like Southern Maryland ham stuffed with greens and pit beef with onion gravy. The high-end Mount Vernon eatery, which shut down in March, was known previously for elite fare and prices to match.

Executive chef Mark Levy said that for him, it’s a return to the classic cuisine of gastropubs in his native England, where “food was always very much more from the heart instead of from the head.”

At the same time, he said, it’s an acknowledgement of how the world has changed since March, and an effort to make Magdalena “more accessible," and more economical for guests in the wake of a pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans, and destroyed so many restaurants.

In a bid to accommodate guests in the era of COVID-19, other restaurants are likely to ditch multi-course tasting menus in favor of faster services that can be eaten in an hour, Weston said.

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“I don’t think many people are interested in spending two, two and a half hours in a fine dining restaurant going through a five- or six-course meal any longer,” said the restaurant association head.

But diners at Magdalena still can expect to be dazzled. An after-dinner cocktail comes with a Berger cookie... topped with gold.

Many eateries have shut down and reopened multiple times this summer, an expensive ordeal.

“The margins are thin in the restaurant industry. Compounded with intermittent closures — it’s just suicide,” said Jerry Trice, co-owner of Gunther & Co., a globally inspired eatery in Canton.

After Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young suspended indoor dining late July, Trice’s business was losing money by staying open. He and wife Nancy Trice shut down the restaurant and laid off their staff again, hiring almost everyone back in September after Baltimore allowed indoor dining to resume at 50% capacity.

Freshly reopened, they’ve launched a deliverable menu available through Uber Eats that features items like Thai curries and fresh salads that travel well.

“Pivot is the new word of 2020," Nancy Trice said.

For hospitality workers more accustomed to bending over backwards to accommodate guests, one challenge has been enforcing mask wearing and social distancing among a sometimes reluctant clientele.

“It was a serious problem" Nancy Trice said. “I was basically the mask police, along with our whole staff.”

Monarque’s Hennessy has heard of arguments happening between diners and restaurant owners or employees. “It’s uncomfortable."

But for the majority of guests, a night out — even under a mask — is just the antidote to the crushing series of disappointments the year has inflicted. Many guests have splurged on meals at Charleston, a restaurant known for its pampering, to make up for vacations missed during the coronavirus.

“They’re using it as a way to spoil themselves a bit, and that’s super-duper flattering,” Foreman said. “It reminds us that people love that feeling, the feeling of being taken care of.”

In a potential sign of life returning to normal, Gov. Larry Hogan last week announced that, in jurisdictions where local governments give the OK, restaurants can fill up to 75% capacity. But eateries still need to follow state and federal health guidelines, which recommend tables be spaced 6 feet apart in the name of social distancing.

That makes it impossible to fill a restaurant at anything near to that, Foreman said.

“It is generous in concept,” he said of the order. “It does not take into the details of operating realities.”

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As the weather cools, restaurants that just a few months ago were investing in outdoor tables and umbrellas to accommodate more outdoor dining likely will need to start stocking up on heat lamps, tents and other supplies, said Michael Evitts, spokesman for the Downtown Partnership. He’s hoping that Marylanders will layer up and embrace the cold weather.

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“That would be a good thing, I think, for all of our mental health," Evitts said, "but it would be a really good thing for our restaurant industry.”

Foreman said he ordered some heat lamps, and already faces a backlog that has come to feel so typical in 2020.

“The ones we ordered in August may come at some point," he said dryly.

As for his guests, good sweaters will help guard against the chilly evening air. So will good wine.

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