Diners watch as Rayse Biggs and his band play at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café in Grosse Pointe Farms Feb. 5.

Diners watch as Rayse Biggs and his band play at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café in Grosse Pointe Farms Feb. 5.

Photo by Deb Jacques


Patrons slowly warming up to return of indoor dining

By: K. Michelle Moran | C&G Newspapers | Published February 9, 2021

 Bartender Katie Potter, of Grosse Pointe Park,  stands behind the bar Feb. 5 at Ye Olde Tap Room in Detroit, ready to serve  customers as indoor dining resumes in Michigan.

Bartender Katie Potter, of Grosse Pointe Park, stands behind the bar Feb. 5 at Ye Olde Tap Room in Detroit, ready to serve customers as indoor dining resumes in Michigan.

Photo by Deb Jacques

 Ye Olde Tap Room owner Russ Mack stands in the bar’s heated patio, which is still open even now that indoor dining is once again allowed at Michigan bars and restaurants.

Ye Olde Tap Room owner Russ Mack stands in the bar’s heated patio, which is still open even now that indoor dining is once again allowed at Michigan bars and restaurants.

Photo by Deb Jacques

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GROSSE POINTES/DETROIT — Of all of the businesses negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants and bars in Michigan have taken one of the biggest hits.

So the state decision to allow for indoor dining once more — albeit at a limited capacity — is a relief for eateries, although still not a full solution as many struggle to stay afloat and pay their employees.

According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, bars and restaurants were allowed to reopen indoor service Feb. 1 at 25% capacity, with a maximum of 100 patrons. Tables must be spaced 6 feet from each other, and there can be no more than six customers at one table. Customers are asked to provide their contact information for contact tracing, and bars and restaurants can only stay open until 10 p.m.

Business has remained steady at Irish Coffee Bar and Grill on Mack Avenue in Grosse Pointe Farms, which has had a heated outdoor tent behind the restaurant for months to accommodate diners during the shutdown. Some customers are still apprehensive about dining indoors, said owner John Kennedy, who operates the community mainstay with his son, Michael. Irish Coffee Bar and Grill had the misfortune of marking its 40th anniversary in May 2020 — when restaurants around the state were closed as part of the first shutdown.

“I think people are a little nervous coming out,” John Kennedy said of the first week back for indoor dining. “We thought there would be more of a real rush to come out, but it’s sort of a slow start.”

Carryouts and the outdoor, tented patio, however, remain strong.

Although Kennedy said they’ve kept up with every adjustment state officials have asked them to make, it’s been a challenge. Even now, he said they’re baffled by the 10 p.m. closing requirement, which Kennedy said “is costing us money” because it means patrons have to leave in the middle of televised sporting events.

“Every time we turn around, they ask us to do something different,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy isn’t the only restaurant owner frustrated with pandemic regulations.

“We welcome the governor’s decision to reopen restaurant dining on Feb. 1 as good, if overdue news,” said Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association President and CEO Justin Winslow in a prepared statement. “It is now time for this administration to move aggressively towards a more comprehensive reintegration strategy, which includes prioritizing vaccination for the broader hospitality industry and establishing clear metrics for phased reopening to 100% capacity of indoor dining. The hospitality industry and its sizable workforce has suffered far worse than its peers from this pandemic, losing nearly 3,000 restaurants and employing 200,000 fewer workers than a year prior. It also stands to gain the most from a proficient and expedited vaccination schedule, which is why we contend that there is no more important step the governor can take to get Michigan’s economy back on track than restoring public confidence in Michiganders’ ability to safely dine and travel.”

Ye Olde Tap Room, on Charlevoix Avenue in Detroit, just steps from Grosse Pointe Park, benefited from a loyal clientele as well as its own strict COVID-19 protocols. Longtime owner Russ Mack said that besides regular cleaning and sanitizing, even the pens patrons use to sign in are disinfected.

“It’s a safe bar,” Mack said of the historical tavern, which opened in 1912 and offers more than 200 kinds of beer. “People feel comfortable coming here.”

Ye Olde Tap Room reopened to indoor patrons Feb. 1, but it wasn’t totally closed for the last couple of months. Thanks to a spacious, fenced-off outdoor tent that can accommodate about 20 patrons with social distancing, Mack said Ye Olde Tap Room has fared better than many other bars, which had to close during the most recent shutdown because they didn’t have outdoor seating.

“We haven’t been doing that bad,” Mack said.

To keep his employees safe, Mack isn’t allowing indoor patrons to sit at the bar, because customers obviously can’t wear masks while drinking. They’re welcome to sit at one of the tables, however, and the patio remains open. It’s heated, but Mack said anyone planning on sitting outside should “dress warm.” They can also stay cozy by enjoying any of a number of heated alcoholic beverages, including Irish coffee, hot toddies, hot buttered rum and peppermint cocoa. While Ye Olde Tap Room doesn’t serve food, patrons are welcome to order something from one of several local restaurants, or purchase items from the food trucks that visit regularly.

At the Dirty Dog Jazz Café on the Hill in Grosse Pointe Farms, the staff has been tasked with protecting diners and musicians alike. Executive Chef Andre Neimanis said the intimate restaurant has installed Plexiglas sheets between musicians and audience members, and patrons are seated at least 10 feet from performers.

“We’re doing everything we can to keep everyone safe — our staff and our patrons,” Neimanis said.

Reservations are highly recommended, especially for Friday and Saturday evenings, which will fill quickly given seating limits. Neimanis said patrons should also visit the Dirty Dog’s website, because set times have been altered.

The elegant restaurant is a popular spot for lunch and dinner, but during the shutdown, Neimanis came up with a new option for diners. Besides offering carryout from regular menu items, he developed a family dinner menu that feeds four to six people. The family dinner carryouts, which are still available, include everything from a classic meatloaf dinner to chicken mushroom penne to salmon, and include bread and a large house salad; prices range from $35 to $90.

“It’s been really successful,” Neimanis said. “It’s nothing really high-end, but it’s really great tasting food.”

For busy families, the meals — which must be ordered in advance — provide a quick and nutritious option.

In spite of these difficult times, restaurant owners say they’re grateful for the support they’ve gotten.

“We’ve got a lot of regulars,” Kennedy said. “We just work with what we’ve got. … The community has been absolutely wonderful. Not only the community, but our employees. My employees have gone beyond the call of duty for everything.”

State officials say Michigan’s progress in the fight against COVID-19 allowed for the reopening of bars and restaurants.

“We are pleased to see the improvements in case rates, hospitalizations and percent positivity that have allowed us to reopen more activities,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy for health at MDHHS, in a press release. “However, we must remain vigilant, especially since we now have a new, more easily transmitted variant of this virus present in our state. This is not the time to let our guard down, and Michiganders should minimize their risk by avoiding gatherings, wearing masks properly, social distancing and making a plan to get their vaccine when it is their turn.”   

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