With pared down menus and host of other changes, restaurants in Havre de Grace have been enjoying a steady stream of customers since Gov. Larry Hogan's order to allow outdoor dining.
And many of those customers welcomed the changes, as well as the opportunity to get out and enjoy a meal somewhere other than their own kitchen.
Keith and Janice Well, of Havre de Grace, for example, had already been out to eat four times as of Wednesday, where they were enjoying lunch at the Tidewater Grille on Franklin Street for the third time in five days.
"We used to go out all the time, then of course, we were in for months, and we know this is safe and the weather has been great," Janice Well said.
“They put a lot of procedures in place to make it safe," she said. "For example, we only raise our hands when we need something, so the [servers] don’t constantly come to the table. ... It hasn’t been super crowded and the tables are spaced appropriately.”
Frank Hahn, the executive chef at Tidewater, said the restaurant has been offering a toned down menu and was trying to cross-utilize ingredients in multiple dishes.
“It makes it easier on us, makes it quicker for us, and we’re able to get people in-and-out and get their food as quick as possible,” he said.
Tidewater added a lot of extra outdoor seating, as well as high top tables where people can enjoy a drink — and the view — while they wait outside, said manager Abbe Schoenfeld. The restaurant also changed its entrances and exits, and hired employees specifically to sanitize, she said.
"We wanted our employees to feel safe coming back and we wanted our customers to feel safe coming in here and seeing that we're taking it seriously," Schoenfeld said.
Coakley’s Pub on St. John Street has set up new outdoor seating. Restaurateur Will Nori said they created an outdoor patio with 10 picnic tables and umbrellas.
"We had 48 hours notice, so it was a little bit of an extreme home makeover out here," he said Wednesday.
“It was a successful weekend. Friday and Saturday real good, Sunday’s weather was phenomenal and people are, I think, really ready to get out," he said. "Just to be able to sit down and be served and not cook at home... the beer’s cold, the food is super good here, we’re priced right. And we’re providing an environment for them here, the outdoor area has been a great asset for our business.”
Not every restaurant was prepared to offer outdoor seating right away.
Joe Lertch, co-owner Vineyard Wine Bar on North Washington Street, said the restaurant planned to start outside dining this Friday at 5 p.m., and was making sure appropriate guidelines were being followed.
One major change at Vineyard will be a switch to one-time use utensils and plates. Lertch said it isn’t what customers of Vineyard, which considers itself an upscale restaurant, are used to, but believe it will make guests feel more comfortable.
"For safety and sanitary purposes ... I want them to have a comfort level to know that although it's not something that we like to provide, it's something that necessary at this point in time," he said. "We want them to be comfortable knowing someone has not used that plate before, someone has not used the fork before, someone has not used the glass before."
Vineyard will be downsizing its menu and its by-the-glass wine list slightly, he said, but mostly to change over to a spring menu offering more seasonal produce and lighter white wines, opposed to the heavier winter reds.
At Tidewater, Schoenfeld said some of the changes that have been well received may become permanent.
“We’ve expanded a lot of the things the customers have been asking for over the years. They wanted more outdoor seating ... this kind of gave us a push because we’ve had to do it,” she said. “Maybe we’ll expand and put a bar out there. People have been asking for that. It’s just baby steps and of course, money.”
Hahn, the chef at Tidewater, noted they had never seated customers out on the lawn before, "but if it keeps working, we'll keep seating on the lawn, there's no reason not too."
Restaurant owners did worry, however, about what happens when the weather turns ugly if they aren't allowed to have patrons indoors.
“You fill your dining area up and a storm rolls in, people are naturally going to want to get up and run inside,” Nori, of Coakley’s, said. “I’m really not looking to do that. I’m trying to stay within all our guidelines.”
The weather is also a challenge when deciding how many workers to schedule on any given day, Hahn said.
“What do we do on a day like today when there’s a 40% chance of rain? We have no option to come inside,” he said Wednesday. “If it starts pouring, what am I going to do? To-go food and that’s it.”
Hogan on Wednesday announced the Maryland was moving into Phase 2 of his Roadmap to Recovery program, but that did not include indoor dining yet. Still, restaurateurs are preparing for necessary changes to welcome diners back indoors when those restrictions are lifted.
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“Once it opens up inside, it’ll be reduced seating inside,” Hahn said, “but I don’t want to get overwhelmed and have people waiting 45 minutes, an hour and a half for food.”