When California’s Department of health announced Tuesday night that restaurants in Napa County could reopen dining rooms for dine-in service — effective immediately — restaurant owners in the region must have breathed a collective sigh of relief. The county’s stay-at-home order has, of course, taken a huge financial toll on its much-vaunted, Michelin-star-spangled dining scene. Now, local restaurant owners are moving forward with a limited return to dine-in service — and, in some cases, with great caution and an eye toward public health and safety.
“We only have one chance to do this right,” says Christopher Kostow, the chef at the Restaurant at Meadowood and the Charter Oak, both in the Napa County city of St. Helena. “If we do it wrong, the impact from both a health perspective and a reputational perspective could be very negative.”
In Kostow’s case, for now, he’s planning to reopen just one of his restaurants, the Charter Oak, which just started doing takeout business a couple weeks ago. Rather than move straight into full service, Kostow says his initial plan — perhaps starting as early as this coming weekend — will be to continue his takeout business and allow customers to eat their food in the restaurant’s large outdoor courtyard, if they choose to. A return to full dine-in service is probably still quite some time away, in part because he’s not sure how much business there will really be.
“We’re going to be more conservative before we go at it full tilt,” Kostow says.
Still, a number of Napa restaurants are planning to dive right into full service. Tamer Hamawi, co-owner of the downtown Napa taqueria Gran Electrica (the lone West Coast outpost of a New York-based mini-chain), tells Eater SF that he’d been anticipating some kind of reopening announcement, but the news “definitely came as a big surprise to just kind of be dropped like that last night.”
Nevertheless, the restaurant plans to reopen its dining room for dine-in service by Tuesday, May 26 at the very latest. Gran Electrica is fortunate, Hamawi says, to have a very spacious and airy dining room, plus a large back patio where they can seat customers who don’t feel comfortable dining indoors. “We’ll remove some tables — we’ll space everything out as much as we can,” he says.
And Angèle, a French restaurant in downtown Napa, will start serving customers this weekend, with a limited dine-in menu that will be available from noon to 8 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Owner Bettina Rouas tells Eater SF that customers will be seated outdoors, with just a couple of tables inside reserved for customers who don’t like dining outside.
The layout of even the outdoor area will have to change drastically, Rouas says: “We’re going to do it correctly — I mean, we’re not going to just shove a bunch of tables out there and serve, irresponsibly.”
“Honestly, from what I understand, I don’t think anybody’s ready to rush out,” Rouas says. ”But I think people are ready to come out and support. And I think everybody is ready to get some air and some sort of normalcy back.”
Maria Gonzalez, manager of the Model Bakery, a 30-plus-year-old cafe and bakery in downtown St. Helena, says the current plan is to wait until after the long Memorial Day weekend to reopen the cafe to dine-in customers. At first, there will be two tables, placed either inside or outside the restaurant, with each table limited to two customers at a time. “It’s going to help us a little, as customers start feeling comfortable,” Gonzalez says.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Oxbow Public Market, downtown Napa’s prominent gourmet food hall, tells Eater that the marketplace is currently planning to open its communal seating areas — both indoor and outdoor — the first week of June.
Some of the region’s higher-end, most widely celebrated restaurants are also taking a slightly slower approach, in part because the logistics of reopening pose so many challenges. The Restaurant at Meadowood, Kostow’s flagship, three-Michelin-star restaurant in St. Helena, won’t open until the hotel that it’s a part of reopens — and that won’t likely happen until later this summer. Beyond that, Kostow says, the restaurant will need to take time to let its reservation book fill up again and to tweak its menu to eliminate tableside preparations, which aren’t allowed by the new state guidelines.
Ken Frank, the chef at longstanding French fine dining destination La Toque, explains that part of the problem is that his restaurant has been completely closed this whole time — “It’s like opening a new restaurant,” he says. He has to fill up his pantry, and his cooks have to start from scratch in terms of preparing all of the stocks and broths that the kitchen uses.
So, La Toque is aiming to open to the public on Friday, June 5 — and, to be sure, Frank says, it will reopen as a significantly different restaurant than it was before. This time, it will have a la carte options in addition to the five-course tasting menu the restaurant is known for, as Frank isn’t convinced that all customers are going to want a long, elaborate tasting menu right now. And there will be significant safety measures, Frank says: “We will be taking temperatures. We will be requiring people to wear masks. We’ll have cotton white glove service in the dining room.”
“I don’t feel the need to be first,” Frank says. “I want us to be the safest restaurant.”