As Boston Restaurants Reopen Their Dining Rooms, Chefs Share Excitement and Concern

Many operators are raring to get back to pre-COVID business—but others are choosing to keep their doors closed.

The dining room at Buttermilk & Bourbon. / Photo by Mike Diskin

Attention, diners: Your table is ready—inside.

Monday was the first day Massachusetts restaurants were permitted to open indoor dining rooms since March 17, the date when Governor Charlie Baker’s on-site consumption ban, a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, went into effect. How quickly will things get back to normal? Depends who you ask. After three long months of waiting, some establishments are setting the socially distanced tables immediately—while others are still taking a cautious, wait-and-see approach. One thing everyone agrees on: There’s no way to know exactly what comes next.

“We’re psyched,” says chef-owner Jason Santos, whose three Boston restaurants—Buttermilk & Bourbon, Citrus & Salt, and Abby Lane—all reopened to indoor dining on Monday. Santos had been waiting for this moment; he had his team safety-trained and ready to jump back into action as soon as possible. “We were prepared. We’d hoped this was coming, and we had the plan and staff on deck for once it was made official.”

Governor Baker announced the prohibition’s end last Friday, while outlining the second stage of the state’s Phase Two reopening plan. Although many restaurants have pivoted to takeout and delivery service throughout the shutdown, this return of dining rooms comes only two weeks after establishments got the go-ahead to launch outdoor service on patios. Since then, most Boston chefs tell me, diners have been showing up in strong numbers, seemingly unruffled and eager to take advantage of all the enhanced al fresco options. Of course, time will tell how quickly customers return to indoor dining rooms, where there’s greater concern about potential coronavirus transmission than in the outdoors.

Santos, for one, is feeling optimistic about the future. In fact, he’s even pushing full-steam ahead on a new Marblehead restaurant: a casual seafood-focused spinoff called B&B Fish, now slated for an August 1 opening. As indoor dining returns to his Boston establishments, meanwhile, he’s rolled out safety precautions such as hand sanitizer stations and disposable menus. And of course, tables in his now-reopened dining rooms are, per the requirement, spaced six feet apart—something that cuts capacity down to roughly 50 percent of pre-pandemic numbers. He was eager to get butts back in seats, fewer though they may be.

That said, Santos wants to make clear that he’s been taking the situation seriously. “When this all started, I was basically wearing a hazmat suit to get groceries,” says the chef, who also witnessed one of his Buttermilk & Bourbon staffers go through a particularly precarious battle with COVID. Following a deep clean of the restaurant, that employee has already returned to work part-time—and Santos believes his portfolio of venues is poised to bounce back stronger, too.

Not everyone is so bullish on returning to business as (semi) usual. The reinstatement of indoor dining “feels aggressively soon and irresponsible,” says Rachel Miller, chef-owner of Nightshade Noodle Bar in Lynn, one of the best new restaurants to open last year.

In fact, Miller is only now preparing to debut a 20-seat outdoor patio where guests can enjoy their plates after pickup, or order cocktails in compostable cups from a newly installed takeout window. She’s even pricing out porta-potties, so that guests won’t have to use the restaurant’s bathrooms.

But indoor dining? Miller says she can’t imagine letting guests back into Nightshade’s 30-seat interior this summer. Her staff simply isn’t comfortable with the idea—and neither is she. “I don’t feel good about it. It doesn’t feel like anything has stabilized yet,” says Miller. She isn’t convinced that restaurants are uniformly ready to prevent the lurking threat of coronavirus transmission, and she’s “disappointed” by industry peers riding what she considers to be a premature wave back inside.

“I’m unwilling to put myself or anyone that works for me in the direct line of fire right now,” Miller says.

She’s not the only restaurant owner concerned about reopening indoor dining rooms now. Although positive tests for coronavirus are still on the decline in the Commonwealth, other area restaurants, from Cambridge’s Loyal Nine to Brookline’s Stoked Wood Fired Pizza Co., have also announced via social media that they plan to keep their dining rooms closed for the foreseeable future. Massachusetts is the last New England state to reopen restaurant interiors, but some operators worry that another surge in cases could be coming.

Of course, restaurants might not have to make such difficult decisions about reopening if the industry was receiving more financial support from the state, says James Beard Award-winning chef Jody Adams. “Everyone feels the pressure to get the economy up and going,” says Adams, a leader with Massachusetts Restaurants United, an initiative composed of local food-world power players that has been pushing for aid throughout the pandemic. Last week, the collective sent a letter to state leaders outlining multiple measures that could help hundreds of eateries stay afloat—such as tax incentives for commercial landlords to provide rent relief to restaurants, as well as the suspension of payroll and meal taxes for independent restaurants.

Until then, revenue-starved restaurants are caught between a rock and a hard place. For her part, Adams is reopening dining rooms at her full-service Back Bay restaurant Porto, as well as her Saloniki fast-casual spots. (Trade, her Financial District-side restaurant, will remain closed since nearby office workers have yet to return in significant numbers, she says.) Adams, who is 63, says that at her age—and with a husband who already has compromised lungs—she deeply understands the need to make conservative choices around reopening. That’s why her employees have been taking daily temperature checks, among other precautions.

Adams adds that she wouldn’t invite guests back to her dining rooms unless she felt they were “protected at the highest level.” But she also acknowledges that “everyone is concerned about whether or not it is too soon.”

“We don’t want people forgetting that COVID is still around, and letting down their guard,” Adams says. “That’s the common concern. And I think every restaurant has to make the best decision for themselves on what reopening looks like.”

“Indoor dining is a big step,” agrees chef Brendan Pelley, who last year traded his highly-regarded work in Boston restaurants to helm Gibbet Hill Grill, a farm-to-fork steakhouse in the exurb of Groton. The restaurant sits on airy, open pasture, so curbside takeout and outdoor dining on its massive porch—including a new pop-up, dubbed GBQ, that serves up epically elevated barbecue plates—has been relatively easy to execute. Things will be a bit more complicated inside the restaurant, where arrows on the floor now dictate the flow of foot traffic, among other tweaks.

Ultimately, though, Pelley feels comfortable opening Gibbet Hill Grill’s dining room on Wednesday; it helps that his wife, a nurse at a Boston hospital, has been a “barometer” for gauging concern. Still, he’s a bit surprised the state’s plan wasn’t staggered geographically, permitting restaurants in more rural areas to reopen first, followed by those in heavily populated urban centers.

“It feels like we could have done it in phases,” Pelley says.