While most of the chairs were still up on tables at Bridge Road Bistro on Bridge Road in Charleston, Chef John Wright was carefully going over the new menu with the staff, pronouncing the Italian names for the waitstaff and explaining the laborious process for making the restaurant’s new garlic chips.
The atmosphere was breezy and friendly, even when managers began working their way through the usual laundry list of managerial peeves and complaints like smoke breaks and tardiness.
“If you’re scheduled for 4, you need to be ready to go out on the floor at 4, not coming through the door and getting something to eat at 4 and then getting started at 4:30,” he said.
Heads nodded. Nobody grumbled.
As the meeting continued, a pair of men wandered in through the front door. Everyone stopped to look at them.
“You’re here to eat?” owner Sandy Call asked.
The men looked at each other, shrugged and then one of them said, “Well, maybe to get a couple of drinks.”
Then they noticed staff in street clothes and the chairs on tables.
“Are you open?” he asked.
It seemed like a pretty good omen to Call.
Beaming, she said, “We reopen September 15. Come back then. I’ll buy you dinner.”
Bridge Road Bistro closed six months ago, just before Gov. Jim Justice mandated that restaurants shut down their dining rooms as part of the state’s response to the growing COVID-19 pandemic.
Restaurants could offer takeout, pickup, curbside and delivery service, but not every dine-in restaurant could make the transition.
“You don’t see a lot of people getting a fillet or scallops for pickup,” Call said.
Bridge Road Bistro closed and expected to be down for about two months until things blew over, until the curb flattened — but the curb didn’t flatten as much as hoped. When restaurants began reopening their dining rooms, they could only welcome 25 percent of their capacity, and the threat of a second shutdown loomed.
A few places didn’t come back, like Rolling Smoke BBQ, which survived and thrived during the water crisis in 2015. Others, like East End stalwart Bluegrass Kitchen, haven’t come back yet.
“People were talking,” Call said. “There were rumors that we were shuttered for good.”
Call said she didn’t mind the rumor — mostly.
“At least we were still in people’s mouths. They were talking about us,” she said.
It was hard to stay closed. Call was acutely aware her employees depended on their jobs.
“This wasn’t just the money,” she said. “We’re social people. What we do here is social and the lockdown was hard on a lot of them just because of that.”
But opening at 25-percent occupancy was a losing proposition. Call said they still had the same bills, plus additional costs for extra cleaning supplies and personal protective Equipment. She said they tried expanding to outdoor seating but getting approval from the city to add outdoor dining dragged on for months.
“We got approval two weeks ago,” she said. “I started trying in May.”
They just had to wait and hope for things to improve. During the downtime, Call said she spent time with her loved ones and worked on growing the grocery side of Bridge Road Bistro’s business.
She took boxes of the packaged soup mix to grocery stores around the state.
“We don’t have a salesperson,” she said. “I’m our salesperson.”
That paid off. Call said Bridge Road Bistro soup mix was going into Kroger’s stores around the state and she had an assurance that if it did well over the next year, the company would distribute it regionally.
“Another revenue stream would be good for us,” she said.
Whatever success the soup brought would come later. For now, Call said it was important to get the restaurant up and running again.
Restaurant restrictions have loosened, though things are not back to where they were before COVID-19. Dining room occupancy is now allowed up to 50 percent, and they’ll soon have outdoor seating, will offer pickup, curbside service and home delivery.
They’ve also made some changes in the kitchen.
“We took the time we were down to look at our menu,” Call said.
To start, the menu was too big.
“It was 75 items,” Wright said. “That’s just too much.”
At least, it was for a restaurant like Bridge Road Bistro, which is largely based around the bar.
“You have some restaurants, like say The Cheesecake Factory, they have a seven-page menu,” the chef said. “They’re corporate. Maybe they can do that.”
But he doubted it. The trend was to streamline menus.
The chef pared down the selection of steaks and seafood and changed up the Italian entrees to give himself a little more flexibility with what the restaurant could do.
“If you have a ribeye on the menu and then feature a ribeye, suddenly people think you’ve just got too much and you’re trying to get rid of it,” he said.
John said they also looked at food trends. Diners were ordering smokey foods, salads and high-end burgers, so he developed a line of new burgers and a smoker for the restaurant is on order.
The menu will be a little more casual, but Bridge Road Bistro hasn’t given up on fine food. Seared diver sea scallops and salmon are on the menu, along with a black & bleu 8 oz. sirloin. There are fried Brussels sprout leaves, herb-roasted fingerling potatoes with garlic chips and a charcuterie with assorted meats, fresh fruits and artisanal cheeses.
But there’s still a pandemic going on. People are conserving resources and are more budget conscious than ever before. Menu items and prices reflect that.
“There’s more family meals,” Call said. “We’re adjusting. We’re adapting to what people want and need.”
Still, the chef was excited about the revamped menu, particularly the pastas and their sauces, which he said gave him a little bit more flexibility with special features.
“I can add a little cream here or make little changes and you’ve got a new dish,” he said.
However, Wright was impressed with the pasta norma, which is served with roasted eggplant, fresh mozzarella and fresh basil in a rich tomato sauce with cracked black pepper.
“I used to hate eggplant,” he said.
With reopening, Call said they’ve worked extra hard to get the restaurant in order. They spent weeks preparing and then cleaning because that’s what dine-in customers will be aware of.
During their employee meeting, they specifically discussed how masks had to be worn: not under the chin, not above the mouth, not dangling from an ear, but covering mouth and nose.
Customers want to feel safe. If they don’t feel safe, they’re not going to have a good time. If they’re not having a good time, they might not come back.
Call said Bridge Road Bistro waited as long as they could to reopen and they have done what they can to not just come back, but come back better.
“I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised,” she said. “I hope they support us. It was hard coming back and we need everybody to make this work.”