The weekend of March 13, 2020, “We were slammed,” recalls Katherine Thompson of Thompson Italian in Falls Church. “The bar was packed.” For many diners, it would be their last time eating out for the better part of a year, maybe longer.
“Monday was when the world imploded,” Thompson says. That was the day she and her husband, Gabe, closed the restaurant. They thought it might remain shuttered for two weeks.
As the pandemic progressed, the Thompsons realized that reopening as they had been was an impossibility. But they also knew they had to return in some form. “Everyone was going stir crazy but wanting to eat good food, too,” Thompson remembers. They opened for takeout at the beginning of April. And as of press time, nearly a year later, Thompson Italian is still serving its highly praised pastas and desserts exclusively to-go. In fact, the restaurant, which debuted in the summer of 2019, has now been open longer as a takeout establishment than it was as a full-service restaurant.
While they’re surviving on the takeout model, Thompson Italian—like many restaurants in the region—has taken an enormous hit to its bottom line. According to statistics released by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, year over year, overall sales in the region have seen a 70 percent decrease, while restaurants are employing just 40 percent of their previous workforce. And those are the restaurants that have thus far survived. In NoVA, as of press time, 19 restaurants have closed their doors for good in the past year, and the winter season could drive that number up.
“I really don’t know that we will ever return to normal. There are many reasons why we shouldn’t.”
Kathy Hollinger, president and CEO of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, says that though the industry has been hit hard, some of the changes that have come with it aren’t necessarily a bad thing. “I really don’t know that we will ever return to normal. There are many reasons why we shouldn’t,” she says.
This may sound like she’s auguring doom, but in fact, Hollinger says that the reason we shouldn’t return to the old ways is that creative restaurateurs like the Thompsons have forged new revenue streams during this time. Diners are experiencing restaurants in novel ways at home. While we will slowly go back to dining in, she believes we’ll also continue to bring home restaurant-supplied cocktail kits and ingredients to make in our own kitchens. Family meals picked up from food businesses will also continue to be a regular part of our dining repertoire.
“Each restaurant has to think, ‘What is my priority in terms of providing service to a changing diner experience where consumer trends have changed?’” Hollinger explains. “There are going to be so many more options and a larger reach in terms of audience for the chefs and restaurants to meet the foodie where they are.”
Thompson hopes to open for outdoor dining in the spring but won’t consider returning to indoor service until at least the fall due to a small dining room that she says won’t be worth reopening until it can operate at full capacity. But while she says she misses going out, Thompson Italian will continue to offer an a la carte takeout menu when that happens. “There are aspects that people like that I think will stick when we return to normal,” she says.
After the Pandemic
- What will change: Takeout meals in all their forms will remain an important part of our gustatory lives.
- What will return to normal: We’ll return to dining at restaurants that are at full capacity.
The following restaurants plan to reopen for dine-in this spring or already recently did:
These restaurants hadn’t decided yet when they will reopen as of press time: