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Downtown Journal: Restaurants Rise or Wane with the Virus

Downtown Journal
An occasional column about city life

Tentatively stepping back into what life used to be, we shake off the shackles of the lockdown and look around at the changed world. It’s not really new, of course, but our perceptions of it are altered. We see things in a new light as the opening of Massachusetts continues to unfold. 

Restaurants are allowed to serve again, but tables must be spread apart in the outdoors. The Sail Loft on Commercial Street was granted a temporary approval from the Licensing Board to set up tables outside and, within a day, the place looked like it had always been an eatery by the sea. With a large concrete apron of flat sidewalk at its front door and umbrella tables in place, the Sail Loft advertises its availability to dine out and take out. 

Mother Anna’s, at the head of Hanover Street, also owns the field of visible dining with many tables, a big sign and instant immediate business. WBZ headliner Lisa Hughes stood near Mother Anna’s last week in a live shot as Hughes anchored the 5 p.m. news. The lead story, of course, was Phase 2 of the state’s getting back to business. The return of restaurants was the easy news hook; the North End, with its fabled restaurant row, was the easy place to drop an anchor. And the TV story turned into a tailor-made promotional pitch for Mother Anna’s. 

Other restaurants deeper into the North End did not fare as well — either with a TV news star standing outside the doors or with a spread of outdoor space for tables. In most cases, the restaurants got a portion of a traffic lane with tables socially distanced. Of course, a burst of summer rain can send diners scrambling. 

When the food editor of The Boston Globe wrote a column in late May saying it would be a long haul before she eats in a restaurant again, a damper fell on the urge to dine out so soon. It could be a long time before Boston restaurants brim over with customers and comestibles. Sad to say and sadder to reckon with, but life as we knew it last summer before the virus broke us is gone. It could be a long time before this neighborhood of tourist trolleys and dinner specials comes back as it was before.

Take-out dining did not prove to be a lucrative substitute for the real thing. Some places, such as Pauli’s on Salem Street, Locale and Rina’s on Hanover were already geared up to appeal to the takeaway diner so those restaurants seemed to munch through the pandemic. Others seemed to fold up too quickly. Starbucks on Commercial Street immediately shut down for days even as other city Starbucks remained open for takeout. Meanwhile Anthony’s on the Waterfront, a place for the best breakfast, kept chugging with take-outs through the first bleak mornings of the crisis. When owner Anthony Gaita was asked what kept him going, he replied with a smile: “I’ve got nothing better to do.”

And then there was the star of the pandemic, the winning café to make friends and influence people as the virus raged. This column had previously dismissed the Café Amalfi on Battery Wharf as a den of stale muffins and acidic brew. A few months ago, I misguidedly wrote that a Dunkin Donuts should take over the property and really do things right. Well, I was so wrong. 

One morning, when all seemed dreary on the street, I noticed a bright tent sign, with bold whimsical lettering, in front of the Café Amalfi advertising pastries and breakfast. I walked by the sign a few times and didn’t go in although the message stuck in my head, which proves even simple street advertising can be effective. 

Finally came the morning when I put my credit card in my pocket as I went out with the dog. While he waited outside near the communal canine water bowl, I went in to find a lovely remade place, where you can keep your distance as you advance to the counter. I ordered a breakfast bun and a butterscotch scone. Both were delicious. Suffice to say, I’ve returned often. 

The Café Amalfi has now remade itself even more, offering outside dining for breakfast and lunch. The place is well on the way to becoming a neighborhood treasure as the entire Battery Wharf has taken on a new luster. The worker strike at the hotel, which ended with the staff getting raises and benefits, is a distant memory. After the strike, I felt I could explore the place in good conscience and walked there often while enjoying the new spring plantings and lush landscape.

 In the changed world after the viral surge, I enjoy second chances. 

Monica Collins lives on the Waterfront with husband Ben Alper, a comedy writer, and dog Dexter.

3 Replies to “Downtown Journal: Restaurants Rise or Wane with the Virus

  1. I perfectly understand that the Restaurants are trying to re-coop all the money they lost due to
    the Virus, but from what I can gather on Hanover St. none of these restaurant tables are
    6 Feet Apart, which leaves me with the question, What about the Virus?

    1. Joan , I think the almighty dollar 🙏🏻 is the top priority there. There is one owner who has appeared on every local news outlet out there & I’ve never seen him once wearing a mask.

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