As 2020 reaches a close, restaurants are in a perilous place.
The current indoor dining ban in Washington has several more days to go until Jan. 4 and a potential return to limited dine-in seating. Takeout-only sales, paired with limited outdoor seating in the heart of winter, have not been enough for the majority of local, independent eateries to make it out of the red after nine months of pandemic-hindered activity.
The list of restaurants in the Inland Northwest that permanently closed this year in connection with the pandemic is likely to grow, and already includes Geno's Pub, Paper & Cup, Fleur de Sel Creperie, Tomato Street in River Park Square (the North Side location remains open), River Rock Taphouse and Cheap Shots bar.
Meanwhile, dozens of local restaurants and bars opted to close for most of the year, hoping to wait it out and reopen at full capacity when they can. Among those pressing pause are Baby Bar/Neato Burrito, Mizuna, Steelhead Bar & Grille, Eyvind and Satellite Diner, plus many others.
While COVID-19's bleak impact has shaken our region's blossoming food culture to its core, signs of hope endure. Residents with the financial means continue to support favorite restaurants by ordering takeout as often as possible, buying gift cards to spend in better days to come, and taking to social media with unsolicited, heartfelt praise of the hospitality industry.
Local philanthropists and food bloggers rallied throughout the year to boost awareness of the industry's struggles. The week of Christmas, Spokane Quaranteam founder Rick Clark announced plans to spend $40,000 donated toward his efforts to aid local restaurants. Throughout the pandemic, Clark has been raising money during Facebook Live streams to spend at struggling restaurants, with food purchased going to area nonprofits or freely given to the public. In recent weeks, daily donation totals ranged from $2,000 to $11,000. The Spokane Eats food and lifestyle blog also recently raised $8,000 to distribute as tips for area restaurant staff.
Another collective effort to help prop up the industry is the Spokane Hospitality Coalition. The recently founded group's mission is to promote public health safety among member restaurants and share creative efforts to sustain business. Big Table Spokane, an existing nonprofit that aids hospitality workers facing hardship, has also seen unprecedented demand in 2020 for its financial assistance, as well as mental health support.
Despite the stagnation and setbacks of a year beset by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Inland Northwest still saw plenty of new arrivals to the region's dining scene.
Many of these establishments' owners planned their openings well before the pandemic's onset, and with construction underway and rent contracts already inked, they had no choice but to move forward. In some ways, opening during a prolonged "slow" time was actually a benefit, allowing for a gradual adjustment to the ebb and flow of restaurant operations.
Among the many openings in 2020, downtown Spokane saw the arrival of several anticipated new spots that have received much acclaim. On downtown's west end, Magnolia American Brasserie inside the newly restored historic Hotel Indigo had its debut in late summer. With a kitchen under the direction of chef Steven Jensen, Magnolia offers a fresh, French-inpired take on upscale yet approachable dining.
A few blocks west, Brick West Brewing opened its doors pre-pandemic in early January, offering pub snacks and a wide variety of craft beer. Next door, Watts 1903 Spirits & Eatery also launched just before COVID-19 hit; it's owned by the folks behind Saranac Public House on downtown's east end.
Wooden City Spokane is another newcomer to the downtown core. Opening in late summer, the eatery has a sister location in Tacoma. Chef and co-owner Jon Green brings experience at two Michelin-starred restaurants, Gramercy Tavern and French Laundry.
Pets and food may seem like a chaotic pairing, but Spokane saw the 2020 debut of not one, but two places that serve food and house adoptable animals. Spokane Kitty Cantina opened midyear, offering coffee and cafe-style eats with a separate onsite room of adoptable cats and kittens that guests can socialize with. A similar spot called Bark, A Rescue Pub, arrived in early fall, offering a full-service pub-style menu and separate areas to house and care for adoptable dogs and cats of the Spokane Humane Society.
In North Idaho, an area with much looser restrictions for restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Southern-inspired Izzy's Comfort Kitchen in Coeur d'Alene and Post Falls' authentic India House are two notable 2020 openings.
More noteworthy debuts from the year include the refugee-supporting nonprofit Feast World Kitchen, bakery and cheese shop Rind & Wheat, Garland's seasonal ramen and pho kitchen Little Noodle, the Hillyard-based Market Street Pizza, and downtown teahouse Revival Tea Company.
Even more new arrivals or expansions announced in 2020 remain on the horizon. Cascadia Public House in Five Mile is growing with a second location in the Logan neighborhood near Gonzaga. Spokane's first New Orleans-inspired eatery, Vieux Carre, is moving into a historic West Central building, and a downtown location of Seattle restaurateur Ethan Stowell's pasta concept Tavolata is on the way.
There were lots more highlights and lowlights throughout this rocky past year. Here's to hoping our current situation turns the corner in 2021 for the sake of all: local restaurant owners, their employees and supporters. ♦