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Comfort Food

The Richmond hospitality industry practices compassion to help #flattenthecurve.



This was supposed to be a story about the creative ways restaurants are dealing with the outbreak of COVID-19: special to-go packages, curbside pickup at high-end establishments and happy hour prices all day, if you sit 3 feet from your barmates.

But a lot can change in 24 hours.

Eateries as new as Style’s restaurant of the year Adarra and as established as the Fan’s vaunted Helen’s have made the difficult decision to temporarily close their doors.

Gov. Ralph Northam held a news conference Sunday evening banning all gatherings of 100 or more people. While he did not explicitly outlaw businesses from operating normally, he did encourage denizens to embrace social distancing. “If you are going to a crowded bar or a large church full of people I would urge you to rethink those plans,” he said.

Virginia’s health commissioner, Dr. Norman Oliver, added that “there will be more cases, we know that.”

In his piece, “Why outbreaks like coronavirus spread exponentially,” Washington Post graphics reporter Harry Stevens explores the mathematics behind the exponential growth of a pandemic and what it takes to flatten the curve.

Stevens maps the time between the first reported U.S. case on Jan. 22 to March 13 when the number of cases in the U.S. reached 2,179. Using a fake disease called simulitis, Stevens simulates what happens when infected people come into contact with healthy people, creating four scenarios: a free-for-all, forced quarantine, moderate social distancing in which a quarter of the population goes out, and extreme social distancing when only an eighth goes out.

You can see here that extensive social distancing was the most effective method using the pretend pathogen.

Nota Bene hopes that it is doing its part to slow the spread of the very real COVID-19. The modern Italian restaurant was open for its last night of dine-in service for the foreseeable future Sunday. It will pivot to to-go only service starting Tuesday. Owner Victoria Aracri Deroche says that deciding to close was the “morally responsible” thing to do. “If we’re going to stop this from moving forward we need to be responsible, even if it hurts your bottom line.”

Early last week, Deroche found out she has a cousin currently hospitalized in Italy due to COVID-19. “My thinking changed.”

Deroche says that running a restaurant during a pandemic is not the same as, say, operating during a really bad ice storm. “What happens when people are afraid and unsure — they want to be around other people. That is not the case here.”

Heritage also has closed its doors. “At its core a restaurant is a meeting place for people,” says owner Emilia Sparatta. “I think it is a responsibility for all of us to work on slowing the spread.”

As of Monday, the Virginia Department of Health reports 51 positive cases of COVID-19 out of 489 people tested. Almost 4,000 people in 49 states, Washington and three U.S. territories have tested positive for COVID-19.

“If you want to look at it from an economic perspective, the more quickly we all address this, the more quickly things will get back to normal,” Sparatta says.

Until then, the new normal means getting creative and practicing compassion.

At tony Rappahannock restaurant, most regulars come in for the $6 happy hour Old-Fashioneds and a dozen Chincoteague Old Saltes to be enjoyed at the long bar. But given the current state of affairs, the restaurant is switching focus, offering an expansive to-go menu with beer and wine, too, so guests can order wood-grilled octopus and single oysters for curbside pickup.

General manager Emily Moffett says the restaurant typically only does to-go during lunch service. “We are a nicer restaurant and part of that experience is coming in and having great service.” But it’s learning as it goes, and boxed octo tastes just as good as the plated stuff, folks. Moffett says the restaurant had to cut most front- and back-of-house staff during this time. “We’re still trying to go figure it out,” she says. “We have been here a while but still. … We’re working on a plan for how to move forward.”

In addition to ample to-go and delivery services available throughout the city, there are also some options cropping up for folks looking to feed their kids now that primary and secondary schools have been closed. Many families rely on school lunches during the week, and Pulp Fiction coffee shop owner Ru Remennikova didn’t want the threat of hunger to worry people on top of the threat of COVID-19.

“I give credit to Hang Space,” Remennikova says. “I was really inspired, when all of this started happening I wasn’t sure how to move forward ... and I still don’t, but we are a community partner and what that means is we have to take care of our community.” Pulp Fiction is offering free bagels with a choice of smear and a side of fruit to kids from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. now through Friday. All they have to do is show up.

Bon Air vegan eatery Hang Space is also offering free lunches for school children until school reopens or until it must “make the difficult decision of closing for a period of time.” From Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. kids will have two lunch options. Check its Instagram for details.

As small businesses grapple with difficult decisions and graphs of exponential growth become cemented in reality, Richmond hospitality veterans all fall back on one shared interest, one common denominator.

“We’ve never seen something like this in our lifetimes,” Sparatta says. “It’s an adjustment — it’s about putting other people’s interests before your own.”

More resources for the quarantined and hungry:

To-go food. If you’re under the impression that you must subsist off of Cheez-It’s and oatmeal knock that silliness out of your head. You can order to-go items from a multitude of area restaurants — most are offering curbside pickup with limited human-human interaction, too. You can order your salmon sushi doughnut from Fighting Fish starting Thursday; Brenner Pass has family meals for four with main courses like veal Marsala and braised lamb neck (try and make that at home); Secco Wine Bar is offering supper to go with two antipasti, two shareable plates, one dessert and a bottle of wine for $60.

Gift cards. In addition to losing money from daily service, many restaurants have had to rethink their upcoming Easter brunches, Mother’s Day luncheons and other spring-centric food and bev related events. If you can’t take Great Aunt Sue out for her favorite 4 p.m. meal in the coming weeks, go ahead and buy her a gift card.

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