Next Step to Normalcy in Connecticut As Restaurants Reopen Indoor Dining

Pizza Connecticut

With much anticipation, last month Connecticut’s restaurants were able to offer inside dining at 50% capacity as part of the State’s phase two of reopening.

Returning patrons returned to a very different look:  Partitions now separate every table — something mandated by state guidelines if tables aren’t at least 6 feet apart. Portable barriers populate the bar area.

The open dining concept at La Fortuna Bar & Restaurant in Stratford looks a little different in the era of COVID-19. It’s a new normal manager Aleks Gjeka says the family business is ready to embrace.

La Fortuna was relatively new when the pandemic hit, causing the Italian restaurant to pivot to takeout and delivery. The restaurant opened in November 2019. “Based on the group of the people that come to sit on the bar, we can relocate them within 10 seconds,” said Gjeka. Customers returned to find a change to the menus too — now printed on poster board and displayed in front of each table. Diners can see their options without touching anything.

La Fortuna got a deep clean with an electrostatic spray prior to opening.  The company markets it as a way to protect surfaces from bacteria and viruses for 30 days. “Our machines allow us to take away the human error involving sanitizing,” said Kristopher Kontos, owner of Eco Sanitation Solutions. The state is also home to a very popular cleaning technology: Bio-polarization that is being utilized by restaurants throughout the State and the nation.

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As the waitstaff set up the dining room at Farmington’s Fork & Fire in preparation for the first indoor service since March, it felt like opening a whole new restaurant, said general manager Ruvin Bogati. Three months of takeout operations, then limited outdoor dining, had called for a makeshift setup in the space that normally seats about 75 guests. As they put the dining room back together, “we were like, ‘I don’t even remember where these plates go,’” he said, laughing.

The Phase 2 reopening was brokered by Governor Ned Lamont and leadership of the Connecticut Restaurant Association.  Included in the program are restrictions on capacity, distance between tables and strict safety measures.

Forced to close during the COVID-19 pandemic, Fork & Fire, tucked into a small Farmington shopping plaza off Route 4, had to pivot and innovate to survive. A shift to takeout took the focus away from the eclectic bistro’s seasonal small plates and craft cocktails, with the temporary menu trending more toward burgers and comfort fare. The team also moved quickly to create a small patio in late May when outdoor dining was permitted.

While the restaurant adapted well to the circumstances, Bogati said, he’s excited to have guests returning for the full experience.

“We’ve always been the kind of place where you have to be here to appreciate how good we are,” he said. “Some thrive on their food, some thrive on their drinks, some thrive on their guest experience. We thrive when we have all three.”

With the past few days bringing sunny skies and temperatures in the 80s, there wasn’t a big rush for indoor seats, restaurant owners and managers reported. At Max’s Oyster Bar in West Hartford, a handful of lunch guests opted to eat indoors, but most chose to sit outside.

There was about a 30-minute wait for patio seats at one point, said managing partner Bob Cooke, even with the restaurant’s expanded outdoor seating in blocked-off parking spaces on Farmington Avenue.

But in the evening, the upscale seafood restaurant was full, both indoors and outdoors, and Cooke called it a “win-win night.” He said guests were comfortable with the new safety protocols, including sanitizing, social distancing and Plexiglass dividers between booths.

“To my surprise, people were not timid,” he said. “I thought they’d be more apprehensive, but they weren’t.” The restaurant already has several reservations for the weekend.”

At Taprock Beer Bar in Farmington’s Unionville section, guests also gravitated to the patio in the sunny weather, said general manager Karen Rokosa, and diners mostly came indoors when the outdoor seats were full. “We’ve been unfortunately having to turn away so many people on Fridays and Saturdays because of our limited capacity outside on the patio,” she said. “With the indoor seating [now] available, are we going to fill up inside? I’m really curious to see what [the weekend] is going to be like.”

Dante Cistulli, owner of Square Peg Pizzeria in Glastonbury, said his guests also preferred patio seating throughout the day, and in the evening, diners enjoyed sitting by the restaurant’s fire pit. Regardless, he was ready for a full house.

“I staffed [Wednesday] like a Friday night in October,” he said. “The re-introduction literally feels like we’re opening this restaurant again right now. The last thing you want to do is have your first impression be a disaster.” Cistulli said he appreciated Connecticut’s phased approach to reopening, which he said was “very beneficial” from a management
perspective.

“Everyone’s getting their feet wet again,” he said. “And we went from an eat-in restaurant to a takeout restaurant literally overnight. Our business completely changed…As much as I would love to go back to those crazy weeks, it’s nice to have a few days to ease into it.”

At The Charles, Bryce Hardy, in reality, was opening his new restaurant for the first time. Wednesday was the first official day of service at the eatery in a historic building on Main Street in Old Wethersfield. Hardy aimed for an April debut, but COVID-19 related delays pushed the opening to mid-June.

“Not being open before the virus was probably a very good thing for us,” he said. “We were able to slow down and really concentrate and how we were going to approach opening in COVID times. We were able to sit down and create procedure, bring in new staff and train them… the expectations were put out there right away.”

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