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A masked host attends to a customer waiting outside San Fermo in Ballard
San Fermo in Ballard accepted walk-ins for indoor seating and its outdoor patio Saturday.
Suzi Pratt

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What the Return of Dining Rooms in Seattle Looks Like So Far

Hours-long waits outside breweries, masked servers, and some false starts

Seattle restaurants began resuming dine-in services just a few days ago, but already there are some people going out to eat and drink like old times. Whether that makes sense, considering the COVID-19 pandemic very much remains a threat, depends on one’s tolerance for risk.

King County officially entered phase 1.5 of Washington’s “Safe Start” plan last Friday after nearly three months of sticking to takeout and delivery only. Indoor seating is now allowed at 25 percent capacity and outdoor seating at 50 percent. According to the new guidelines, all tables and chairs both indoors and outdoors must be separated by six feet of distance.

Restaurants — along with bars, breweries, and wineries that serve food — must also adhere to other safety guidelines laid out by the state. Those include providing hand sanitizers in easily accessible locations, providing single-use menus, and making sure all employees are wearing masks. Even though diners are not required to wear face coverings, Gov. Jay Inslee has said that businesses can refuse service to customers who don’t wear them without facing legal repercussions — and public health officials strongly encourage wearing masks to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

This weekend saw lines of diners in some neighborhoods. Despite the limitations on capacity, rustic Italian restaurant San Fermo in Ballard drew a steady stream of customers for both seating inside and on its patio on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Co-owner Tim Baker tells Eater Seattle “the architecture is working in their favor,” since there are a lot of nooks and crannies that can naturally separate tables to promote social distancing. Still, concerns about capacity had San Fermo staff turning over tables as quickly as possible. For now, there are no reservations — it’s first come, first serve, and takeout is still available.

A stream of masked customers enter the dining room at San Fermo
San Fermo in Ballard had a steady stream of customers this weekend.
Suzi Pratt
The outdoor patio at San Fermo
King County’s rules state that tables must be spaced out at least six feet apart.
Suzi Pratt

Ballard breweries and bars have started reopening as well, although on a somewhat staggered timeline. The Nordic-influenced Skal Beer Hall took reservations Saturday and had more of a quiet “friends and family” reopening, welcoming in members of its beer club, just to get the hang of protocols. And many breweries in the neighborhood came up with their own set of shared guidelines (based on Washington’s “Safe Start” plan), which includes diners bussing their own tables, requiring customers wear masks, and scanning QR codes to record visits for contact tracing.

In Fremont, people were lined up for hours outside Fremont Brewing, waiting for a seat in its outdoor beer garden. But even if the patio seemed to encourage social distancing, the line itself was a little tight, prompting the brewery to reassess how to arrange everything going forward in order to create more space. It’s also still doing to-go orders.

Still, those who waited didn’t seem too concerned. “Even if we have to sit farther away, it’s just so nice to see people having fun and enjoying themselves,” said one customer, Mark Lee. “The sun probably helps a bit.”

Lines outside Fremont Brewing on a sunny day Suzi Pratt
Skal Beer Hall’s indoor dining room, with a Viking statue on the wall Suzi Pratt

Clockwise, from top left: The line outside Fremont Brewing Saturday; the outdoor patio at The Noble Fir; Locust Cider’s outdoor patio in Ballard; and the back dining room at Skal Beer Hall

In general, there was a learning curve, with some restaurants making adjustments already. The Mexican restaurant El Camino reopened its dining room and back patio briefly Saturday (and had plenty of diners), but quickly shut it back down over staff concerns, going back to takeout and delivery.

“We rearranged our entire restaurant over the past three months incrementally for our busier-than-expected takeout sales,” says general manager Nathan Yagi-Stanton. “So we need more time to undo a lot of what we did to accommodate table service. But, also, all but two of our team members are BIPOC and have been emotionally drained with everything going on across the country and locally here in Seattle. It’s why we closed Sunday.”

The indoor dining room at El Camino, displaying colorful decorations
El Camino opened on Saturday, but is now only doing takeout and delivery orders.
Suzi Pratt
The outdoor patio at El Camino
Suzi Pratt

Down in the International District, the iconic Pho Bac Sup Shop was still cleaning up after damage to the storefront during recent protests, but co-owner Yenvy Pham and her siblings still reopened the dining room at 25 percent capacity — and appeared to have an organized system ready.

On Tuesday evening, there was a makeshift stand near the front entrance taking both to-go orders and walk-in table requests (no menus at tables), with a pathway for servers to either drop-off orders at the front or take them to seated customers. Each table had disposable chopsticks and spoons ready, alongside a pre-filled water glass. Masked servers with gloves brought out bowls of pho, and one part of the restaurant was completely closed.

Still, like other places mentioned here, Pho Bac hasn’t abandoned to-go and takeout. The Pho Mobile — a repurposed old traffic enforcement vehicle — was still puttering around the neighborhood. It even had a message that seems aligned with where much of Seattle’s mood really is right now.