The local restaurant scene one year later, and what the future may hold for dining and drinking spots across the region.
It’s hard to believe that we are basically one year into the pandemic, and in some ways it seems a miracle that the Boston-area restaurant scene even exists at all after all the pain it has gone through. Back in late February and early March of 2020, things mostly seemed to be humming right along as usual, with dining spots often being full on weekend nights, neighborhood bars being packed with regulars, and nightclubs offering the usual music, dancing, and drinking.
But the elephant was already in the room, and there was a sense of dread among some, a chill that kept restaurant owners and workers awake at night. Sure, places were generally busy, but there were signs that something was amiss: Typically popular eateries were sometimes completely quiet on weeknights, diners seemed to be doing more and more takeout and delivery, and some restaurant owners and managers were starting to brace themselves for whatever was about to go down.
Outside of the restaurant world, life seemed to be relatively normal early last year, but if you look at the daily Facebook memories today, you’ll notice an increasing sense of alarm with each passing day, starting as early as Valentine’s Day when people were posting memes of classic old romantic movie scenes where the actors would be kissing, but with masks photoshopped on (and it seemed funny at the time but obviously not so funny now). This was a full month before everything went to hell with the coronavirus starting to spread like wildfire and restaurants being forced to shut down and, soon, other businesses having to follow suit.
The restaurant shutdown itself (other than takeout/delivery) was initially planned for only three weeks, and some initial contact with folks in the industry included a few who said right off the bat to not assume it would be over in three weeks and that the entire restaurant scene was at risk of collapsing. Talk like this could have easily been written off at the time, but those who mentioned this were among the most well-respected people in the industry, so any hope that this would all be over in three weeks seemed like wishful thinking, and sadly, it turned out that they were right.
As we know, three weeks turned into three months, with outdoor dining finally able to open in early June and indoor dining able to open later that month, both having social distance/capacity restrictions. And bars without kitchens not only couldn’t reopen but are still not allowed to be open after all this time, making it nearly a full year of some watering holes being shuttered. A number of them found ways to open, including setting up kitchens within their spaces and working with restaurants and food trucks to collaborate on outdoor dining, but it’s no secret that the bar scene has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic and corresponding restrictions.
So where do we stand today as we head toward the one-year anniversary of the restaurant shutdown? Walking through downtown Boston and other normally bustling areas is enough to bring one to tears, with endless “for rent” and “closed” signs along with auction notices, boarded-up storefronts, and a near-total lack of people even in the busiest sections of the region. There is definitely some hope, however, as the weather is starting to show signs of moderating, which means outdoor patios aren’t too far away, and grants have certainly helped a number of dining and drinking spots. And most importantly, the COVID numbers are heading in the right direction after a surge earlier this winter that had the daily new cases in Massachusetts being at positively scary numbers, and more and more people are getting the vaccine, which can only help bring the pandemic to more manageable levels.
Unfortunately, there are those who still don’t take the virus seriously, not wearing masks and not social distancing and basically thinking of the virus as nothing more than the flu or common cold—and too many folks simply refuse to get vaccinated, which will only prolong the pain and suffering that way too many have already had to deal with.
One year of sickness, death, and economic devastation (including on an individual level via unemployment and loss of homes, businesses, and health care) has really been too much to bear, since it’s overwhelming to mourn the loss of loved ones while at the same time worrying about your next meal, rent payment, prescription refill, and so on.
The term “the darkest hour is just before the dawn” seems to apply to the restaurant industry here (and life in general in some ways), as the combination of warmer weather, vaccinations, continued social distancing and mask-wearing (and no, you can’t just stop doing that once you get vaccinated), and what could ultimately be a bottled-up demand for going out to eat could go a long way toward getting dining and drinking spots back on their feet. Still, it will be a long, long time before we get back to where we were in the early days of 2020 before everything went to hell.
Marc is the founder of @hiddenboston, a textbook editor, a hike leader for @AppMtnClub, and a food and travel writer and commenter for DigBoston, NBC/NECN, WBZ, WMFO and indie617.