The reservation list was full on Monday night at Aquitaine Bistro in the South End.
It didn’t mean what it used to mean prior to COVID-19 restrictions and shut-downs, but there hadn’t been one reservation in the book since March 15, and owner Chris Glionna said the situation for restaurants is still dire, but Monday’s return with outdoor dining only was a small thing to hang his hat on.
“It’s starting again today,” he said, slightly before the 4 p.m. opening. “We’re following the guidelines. We’ve got safety plans in place and sanitizer and everything the governor asked for and more…Given the reservations we had booked for tonight (Monday), we might stay open later. We’re sold out tonight. That’s something.”
Under Gov. Charlie Baker’s opening plan announced on June 6, restaurants with outdoor seating were able to open with major restrictions on Monday, June 8. At Aquitaine, that meant six tables outside arranged six feet away from one another. A large table outside featured a QR Code that could be scanned for those that didn’t want paper menus and wanted to order using their phones. Others can use paper menus, he said, but they are thrown out after each use. They are offering touchless payment methods, and currently are staying open from 4-8 p.m. every day – serving French food on Saturday and Sunday, he said.
All of that was relayed with a shrug, and the understanding that having been closed nearly three months solid, the restaurant and the rest of its family of restaurants were suffering mightily. Many restaurants face an uncertain future even as they try to re-open and invite guests back to dine outside.
Already, stalwarts like Stella Restaurant off of Blackstone Square in the South End has closed down for good after 15 years, announcing that about a month ago. The same went for CODA on Columbus Avenue in the South End, which had served local beer and casual food for many years before calling it quits. The numbers of restaurants that return is still up in the air.
At Aquitaine, Glionna said despite the struggles of the current moment, it does feel good to open the doors, and see familiar, long-time customers again.
“It does feel good,” he said. “Nobody knows what will happen though. People walk by and see our tables and start clapping for us. They’re excited and they are happy. It is a strange new world.”
For less traditional restaurants like stalwart Newbury Street hang-out Trident Booksellers and Café, the first day of welcoming guests back to sit outside was a great success.
Around 4 p.m., they had several people sitting at the tables, enjoying drinks or snacks. They are serving breakfast, beer and wine, desserts, lemonade and they have their wi-fi up and running.
Reading, of course, is also permitted.
“We started with three tables today, and then we put out a few more as people came,” said employee Frances Gossen, who was greeting customers with a mask and sanitizer on the sidewalk. “We had all six of our tables filled at one point. It’s the first day of Phase 2, but if it keeps up like this we’ll go earlier and a little later too.”
Right now, they are open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and they are still doing curbside take-out as they have been for some time.
What has gotten them through this tough time, however, is the sale of online books.
“We’ve done a lot of online book orders, we updated our website and we put our entire stock of books online,” she said. “We have hundreds of orders, which is what really pulled us through. This is really just getting us back out and hugging the community. We miss them. The reception has been great and we need them as we battle the Amazons.”
The City and its Licensing Board is working with other agencies, like the Public Improvement Commission and the Boston Transportation Department (BTD), to create unique spaces for restaurants. On Wednesday, the City said they had received about 500 requests for temporary extension onto outdoor space, and already more than 200 businesses have received full or conditional approval to expand their outdoor space to serve patrons. The Board is actively issuing approvals for temporary extensions on private and public property, and applications will continue to be reviewed and approved on a rolling basis.
“Boston is committed to a safe, phased reopening process,” said Mayor Martin Walsh. “That includes helping our small businesses open safely and successfully, and we’ve been working wherever we can to remove barriers and provide new opportunities. The restaurant industry has been incredibly impacted by this global pandemic, and we’ve made helping the small businesses that make our neighborhoods and city so special a priority during this time.”
If restaurants have applied and received approval, they can begin outdoor service on their property, or in the public parking spaces outside their establishment, immediately. Those outdoor spaces can remain open until 10 p.m. on weeknights and 11 p.m. on weekends.
Outdoor restaurant tables must be minimum 6 feet away, and tables can’t seat more than six people. Workers must wear masks, and patrons must wear masks until they are seated at their tables. In the State of Massachusetts’ regulations around reopening, indoor restaurant dining is not yet allowed.
The Board, Boston Transportation Department, Inspectional Services Department, Public Improvement Commission, and Public Works Department will waive fees for the approved use of outdoor space for this program, on both public and private property, on a temporary, non-precedent setting basis. The Licensing Board last month also voted to lift citywide the preexisting condition of “alcohol with food only” on outdoor space or any other similar condition that prohibits the sale and service of alcohol on outdoor space without the service of a food item.