The Return of Dining – And Restaurant Week

In-person dining could return to local restaurants and bars on February 1, according to plans announced Wednesday by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS). Local restaurant owners – many of whom are exasperated by repeated reopening setbacks and what they perceive as unfair treatment of their industry – are eagerly awaiting the move, as well as the return of an expanded and modified Traverse City Restaurant Week in late February.

MDHHS Director Robert Gordon announced updates to the statewide pause order Wednesday, including allowing additional services to resume where residents can be masked and socially distanced. Those include indoor group fitness classes, non-contact sports, and K-12 extracurriculars – activities Gordon said were important to “support physical and mental health.” The updated order begins Saturday (January 16) and continues through January 31. Colleges and universities can also have students return to campus for the winter semester and restart in-person courses as of January 18.

MDHHS delayed, however, allowing in-person dining to resume at restaurants and bars, citing a post-holiday bump in cases and testing positivity rates. “Indoor dining brings risk, because it involves taking off masks,” Gordon said. “Now is not the time to let down our guard.” Gordon said MDHHS is targeting a February 1 restart of in-person dining across Michigan – assuming an improvement in numbers in the coming weeks – with mitigation measures, capacity limits, and a curfew to be enacted as part of the return. Gordon did not specify required measures or a curfew time, but said more details would be announced in the days ahead.

The announcement was met by frustration and resignation by local restaurant and bar owners, who have been forced to close their doors to in-person customers since November 18. Owner Chris Hoffman of The Towne Plaza says he spent the last two weeks alone in his restaurant “dusting, waxing the floors, fixing the coffee machine, cleaning the carpet” and getting every element of his space ready for reopening this weekend, when the MDHHS order was set to lift. “I had my heart set on this Saturday,” he says. “I placed a food order and started to get my staff together. It’s heartbreaking…20 days seems like a million years from now.” Offering takeout doesn’t make financial or logistical sense for Towne Plaza, Hoffman says, so he will wait to reopen in February – but says the months of mandated closures have been financially devastating. “I didn’t realize those first five to six weeks how fast money flies out the door,” he says.

While Trattoria Stella has maintained a steady to-go business during the shutdown, co-owner Amanda Danielson questions the continued closure of restaurants while other businesses that appear equally or more risky are allowed to operate. “I really don’t think we needed to be shut down the second time, quite frankly,” she says. “People are walking around stores with or without masks, very little distancing, handling things on shelves…we just don’t do that in restaurants. People walk in, sit down, and eat and drink. Staff are 100 percent masked all the time.” While Trattoria Stella hoped to welcome customers back to the dining room this weekend, Danielson says the owners “were not remotely surprised that the reopening was delayed from the fifteenth. The way things have gone, it’s just waiting for another blow to the restaurant industry. We will just redouble our efforts and focus on carryout and open to the capacity we can on February 1.”

In light of the precarious state of the restaurant industry, Traverse City Restaurant Week – an annual weeklong event typically held the last week of February featuring $25 or $35 three-course meals at local eateries – is more important than ever in 2021, according to Traverse City Downtown Development Authority (DDA) CEO Jean Derenzy. “We do want to keep Restaurant Week, especially this year,” she says. “It’s an awesome opportunity for people to have different experiences at different restaurants.”

Knowing the DDA would need to account for market uncertainty and shifting regulations that could restrict restaurant service during the event, staff surveyed past Restaurant Week participants on what owners could realistically manage this year and how they wanted the event to operate. Based on their feedback, Restaurant Week will be expanded from one week to two weeks for 2021, running February 21 to March 6. “The idea was (the restaurants) would like to extend it to two weeks, but keep it as close to home and normal as possible,” says DDA Downtown Experience Coordinator Nick Viox. “Still having dine-in, with to-go options added on, or switching to to-go if dining isn’t allowed.” Prices will still be set at the $25 and $35 levels this year, Viox says, according to each restaurant’s preference.

Approximately half of last year’s Restaurant Week participants, or 15 venues, have already agreed to participate this year. Viox expects that number to climb by a January 22 sign-up deadline, especially following Wednesday’s MDHHS announcement. While takeout will be a new twist on Restaurant Week, Viox says the DDA knows many residents will not feel comfortable dining in person even if it’s allowed, and encourages people to patronize restaurants however they can. “As long as people are supporting our businesses, whether in person or to-go, that’s all that really matters,” he says. More details on the 2021 Restaurant Week lineup and menus – as well as a photo contest planned for the event – will be announced in early February.

In the meantime, restaurant owners are already thinking through how their participation in Restaurant Week will look this year. Some express skepticism about the event; Hoffman, for instance, says he doesn’t envision having “the staff or structure underneath us to be able to pull that off” this year. Other owners are more optimistic. “We are 100 percent in,” says Danielson. “It’s great, it’s really fun. Restaurant Week will likely be reflected in both of our menus, our in-person dining and to-go. We have signature items that travel beautifully. Our house-made pasta, octopus, burrata, charcuterie. We put an emphasis on items we know will travel well.” Danielson says Trattoria Stella has worked hard to translate its fine-dining experience to a takeout experience of comparable quality, with Executive Chef Myles Anton and staff testing how long food items hold their heat and flavor in containers and making strategic adjustments, such as serving short ribs instead of steak, which could lose its peak temperature before making it home. “The ultimate goal is creating that Stella experience when people are dining in their own homes,” Danielson says.

Pam Marsh of Red Ginger, another Restaurant Week hot spot, is also game for a revamped format in 2021. “We will have a takeout component, as well as an in-person option,” she says. “We will participate the two weeks, and fall into that $35 per person category.” Red Ginger has kept 50 percent of its staff employed during the shutdown assisting with the takeout program, and is eager to bring more employees back when dining resumes, Marsh says. “We are getting great feedback from the employees that they are anxious and ready to come back to work,” she says. Marsh hopes Restaurant Week will serve as a morale boost and “good camaraderie” event for both businesses and customers this year. “Let’s do something fun and make it feel like a safe, social event,” she says.