After nearly three months in isolation overdosing on home-cooking, throngs of people sought out the company of others in addition to menus compiled by personal taste preference rather than what was left in the pantry. When Gov. Chris Sununu lifted the restrictions on dining at restaurants to allow outdoor dining on May 18, it was difficult to figure out who was happier – the diners, restaurant owners or the staff – as warm greetings and literal squeals of delight were exclaimed by all three groups. The rules are different – masks are required by staff and anyone moving into the building for any reason, there is reduced seating capacity, tables spaced 6 feet apart, no more than six at a table, stringent sanitation between guests, and one-at-a-time bathroom visits. In some instances, restaurants issue time limits for dining and require reservations. But none of that mattered to people who just wanted to hang with friends and have someone else take on the responsibility of cooking and cleaning.
Salem Life posed three questions to a sampling of the newly re-opened restaurants. • What are you doing differently? • How are you staffed? • How are your guests responding?
Tuscan Kitchen and Tuscan Market, 63 Main St.
Edwin Santana from Tuscan Kitchen, director of sales and marketing for Tuscan Brands, was anxious to let us know what they are doing. He said their two restaurants – Tuscan Market and Tuscan Kitchen – took advantage of outdoor seating as soon as they heard about it.
“Tuscan Market always had outdoor tennis and bocce courts, but people had run out of things to do so we wanted to jazz it up with live music on Sundays, custom cornhole boards and a family fun atmosphere with a more economically priced menu. We offer Sunday brunch with friends, tiki torches, and bistro lighting to add sparkle. We’d always had a beer and wine menu, but now we offer a full liquor menu at the outdoor bar; we brought in couches for people to relax on while enjoying a pitcher of sangria. We’re getting a lot of people coming to eat or snack and relax right off the new rail trail.”
“At Tuscan Kitchen, we brought in an enormous tent that’s 40 feet by 80 feet and wanted to do all we could to recreate the feeling of being inside the restaurant. We picked up all our furniture and added more patio furniture to create a new fun vibe, but still give people the familiarity of being at Tuscan Kitchen with wooden tables and cast iron, and a container bar. We have reggae music and other live music on weekends. It feels like you’re on vacation with bistro lights, tree plantings, fire pit and a pizza oven. We’re offering our full menu. We want to excite all the senses, so we have added an outdoor pizza oven to waft the aromas that diners experienced inside from our open kitchen. We want to help get people out of their ruts, to feel as though they’ve escaped and are being taken care of. We also spray for bugs, and our tiki torches are repellents. We are able to help with climate control with over a dozen fans, and a half-dozen heaters and air conditioners.”
The Tuscan restaurants are committed to safety: “It’s our job to make sure all are safe, so we over-staff the front desk, put distance markers on the floors and staff to monitor the distancing. Even our entertainment will make regular announcements reminding guests to keep 6 feet apart. We want people to feel safe enough to come sit down and feel normal. We installed sanitation stations and our staff’s personal protective equipment is changed between tables.”
Their guests seem to appreciate their efforts. There was a wait to find a parking space on early Thursday evening.
“Tip percentages have been higher than normal; people are generous and understand the effect the closures had on the servers. We’ve also noticed that our guests are ordering premium items, so spending levels are up. They’re treating a Tuesday like an anniversary. Also, we are grateful that people are understanding about waiting for a table and thank us for being open. We did not instill time limits for dinner. People haven’t been out for such a long time, so it wasn’t right to limit time at table. We want to let them do what they have been craving and that may mean staying at tables for longer amounts of time. We’ve been super busy. Salem isn’t a late city, but now we have a third wave of guests after 8:30 pm even on a weekday. People will take whatever time slot is available.”
Santana added, “I’m going to quote Joe Faro (Tuscan Brands founder) here. He said, ‘When life gives you lemons, make limoncello.’ The state of New Hampshire allowed outdoor seating and as soon as we could, we opened up.”
MaryAnn’s Diner, 3 Veterans Memorial Parkway
Outside at MaryAnn’s Diner, every effort is made to make guest feel as though they were inside. Oldies music plays softly. They skipped the generic picnic-table furniture and moved their own tables and chairs outside. They added complementary bright-red umbrellas and barricades that match their décor. Guests dine on the sidewalks around the front of the building.
“Our goal is to make it feel as much like dining inside as possible, while sitting outside,” said owner Bill Andreoli. “We tried the curbside pick up for three weeks during the shutdowns, but business dropped to about 5% to 10% of normal. Everything changed when we opened up the outdoor seating. We’ve been very busy. Our guests are so happy to be back. We get called out from the kitchen all the time now just so they can say, ‘Thank you for being open.’ We’re a family business, my three kids work here. This was something entirely new. We’ve been open for 31 years (at our original location in Derry) and we’ve never had to close like this. Sometimes good comes from bad things. We are inspired by the people who are so happy to see us. People in general seem much more thankful to be together and to be served by others.”
This point was brought home by guest Jessica Licata who was surrounded by five friends: “I missed my friends so much. This is the first time we’re back together. I am so grateful to have them with me on my 21st birthday.”
Friend Molly Wolfendale interjected: “And MaryAnn’s is a classic. A real 10 out of 10.”
Jocelyn’s Mediterranean Restaurant, 355 S. Broadway
Over at Jocelyn’s, the large tented parking lot included bright potted flowers that made their space seem more like a well-coordinated wedding reception than a quick solution to a tough situation. There is signage at the reception area asking people with symptoms to return home until they feel better, and to maintain social distancing.
Owner Richard Sfeir said, “We’ve never had outdoor dining before, and people are loving it. We are fully staffed. One of our biggest challenges is keeping things clean. We are right on Route 28, so we bring all our tables and chairs in at night. We’ve made a few changes, and our wait staff may communicate a little less to keep themselves and our guests protected. People are a little nervous at first, but they see how we keep things clean and they start to enjoy themselves. People are so interested in coming back to dine with us that they make reservations three to four days in advance.”
Sfeir appreciates the efforts that were made by town officials: “The health and fire departments really worked with us. We got our outdoor permits and license in a day. We really felt that they want us to do well.”
Sayde’s Bar & Grill, 136 Cluff Crossing Road
Sayde’s is named for owner Sayde Kassis and she is a regular feature at both in the kitchen and out front among the guests.
Daughter Jaime Sharkey, who is part of three generations working at the restaurant, provided a snapshot of how their outdoor experience is going: “For protection and to minimize contact, we offer prepackage items like utensils and condiments and nothing is ever saved. But the food is still the same high-quality, big-quantity deliciousness as ever. Another change is that we are asking guests to make reservations and they are limited to two hours. If someone gets a last-minute fill in spot, we request that they limit themselves to an hour and a half to be fair to the next people coming for that table. Our guests are loving that they can come back. We have many regulars who have been sending us selfies of themselves looking sad in their own kitchens with a plateful or ramen or hotdogs. They were asking us when we would reopen. These people feel like family and we feel like home for them. We’ve seen a lot of new people coming here from Massachusetts because their restaurants aren’t open yet, so in the meantime they are becoming regulars here because of the food and service. We actually have a unique way of limiting the amount of service a table needs; we offer ice buckets filled with multiple beers. The beers have to be open, but it saves time and adds another layer of protection between the server and the customers.”
Sayde’s hosted a popular music scene which has not returned yet.
“We decided not to do that because live music draws a big crowd and we are working very hard to follow the guidelines to a ‘T’, so it’s not time for that yet,” Sharkey said. “The secret to our popularity is that you come in as a stranger and you leave as a friend, and from there you become a lifer.”
A group of four women was enjoying their first girls’ night out in far too long. They laughed and spoke over each other in their excitement to be together.
“There are two more of us who aren’t here. Together we’re the Dream Team,” one of them said.
They insisted that they be photographed with owner Sayde. When she tried to hide behind her guests, they pulled her front and center: “Get Sayde in the picture, get Sayde. She’s a big part of the reason we love this place. That and the food, of course,” one woman said.
Sharkey reflected, “You know, we’ve been a family business for 25 years. My mother Saydee Kassis, my sister Jeannie Kassis, my son Jyles and I all work here. There was no way we were gong to let this virus kill our business. We are going to fight to keep it going and to keep bringing great food and friendship to our family of customers.”