Dining in or out? Restaurant owners get creative reconfiguring spaces

Claire McArthur
Tahoe Daily Tribune
Tep's Villa Roma Italian Restaurant is offering outside dining and features a new menu.
Bill Rozak / Tahoe Daily Tribune

Around Lake Tahoe and on both sides of the state line, restaurants are beginning to open for dine-in guests, but the experience is not quite business as usual for employees and diners.

On May 9, Gov. Steve Sisolak allowed Nevada restaurants to open for dine-in service with enhanced safety and sanitation measures, and soon after, on May 12, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the state’s new guidelines for sit-down dining and a county-by-county decision process for this next phase of reopening. El Dorado County was among the first two counties in California to reopen for dine-in service.

In Incline Village, restaurateurs Nellie and Jonas Saia opened their trio of eateries — Austin’s Restaurant, Austin’s Ice Cream and Fumo — on May 9 for sit-down dining after two months of operating their businesses with curbside pickup and delivery of both prepared food and a newly established same-day grocery service.

“That weekend was crazy,” says Nellie. “It was Mother’s Day weekend, and we were still trying to juggle the groceries, curbside pickup, takeout, and delivery. It was a little hectic.”

Every other table in their restaurants, including on the patios, has a large “X” across it in masking tape to follow the state’s limitation of 50% seating capacity and six-foot spacing requirement. Staff is continuing to wear masks, and now they’ve scaled back their grocery delivery to next-day service.

Chairs, tables and menus are sanitized after each use, but customers are encouraged to use the tableside contactless ordering system Nellie created, which allows diners to order from their phone on the restaurant’s website, input their table number and pay using a QR code. Beefing up their online presence was an investment, but one that has allowed them to remain nimble with continually changing guidelines.

“I tried to think of any possible way that it can be contactless. We’ve always been table service,” explains Nellie. “We’ve only gotten a couple of negative comments. Overall, I’ve gotten a lot of really positive feedback from the whole community.”

Even with dine-in service available, Nellie said they are going to continue the curbside pickup and grocery and food delivery for the time being given the uncertainty of the summer ahead.

Though Nevada’s lodging establishments are open, unlike their Golden State counterparts, the statewide stay-at-home order is still in place, which calls for visitors to self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival and avoid public places.

“It’s scary because for most everybody in Tahoe, the summertime is when you make your money, and your goal is to save enough money to last you or be steady enough to survive throughout the rest of the year,” notes Nellie. “But I think that no matter what, we have a pretty consistent following with the locals and the little perimeter around Tahoe to keep us going.”

In South Lake Tahoe, restaurants are facing similar statewide dine-in guidelines, including six-feet between tables, masks for employees, enhanced sanitation for employees and all surfaces, disposable or online menus if possible, and removal of shared table supplies like salt and pepper in exchange for single-use items.

For Nick Ashmore, owner of Cafe Fiore, a high-end Italian restaurant located in a pint-sized cabin in South Lake Tahoe, figuring out how to optimize his 200-square-foot dining room after a two-month closure took some creative thinking.

“Luckily, I’m a member of the [South] Tahoe Restaurant Association group. That was a huge help to be able to bounce ideas off of other people,” said Ashmore, who ultimately reduced his table count inside from seven tables to three. His seasonal patio was also cut from six tables to three, but he made up for the loss with three more tables in the previously unused garden.

Ashmore set up a sanitation table with masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and wipes for guests and employees.

“Once we approach a table to drop off a salad or bus a plate, we turn around and sanitize our own hands,” explains Ashmore. “After the guests leave, we remove the table cloth, sanitize the chair, table and windowsill nearby, if there is one. I’m wiping down everything.”

Operating by reservations only and with a limited menu due to some issues with the food supply chain, Ashmore said he’s been grateful for the slower pace of reopening because it’s given him and his staff time to adapt to their new procedures.

“The last couple of weekends, people were very thankful and gracious that we were open and they had a place to dine,” added Ashmore.

South Lake Tahoe lodgings, from hotels to vacation home rentals, remain closed and visitors formerly faced $1,000 fines for violating stay-at-home orders within city limits, though city council on Thursday officially told law enforcement to stop writing citations.

A lack of tourism has come as a major hit to restaurants and other businesses around the basin.

Though Ashmore knows this summer won’t be the same as what Cafe Fiore has experienced over their nearly 30 years in business, he’s optimistic.

“It’s not going to be anything like years past, but that’s fine. I have talked to friends who say, ‘I”m not ready to go out yet,’ and I get it. There are still people that are concerned and staying safe and healthy at home. I credit them,” said Ashmore. “But I also give credit to the people that are willing to come out and try to get some normalcy into their lives. Overall, I’m hopeful.”

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