“This is a time to gather in community, and to do that kind of stuff again [on] a warm summer day,” said Gov. Tim Walz in his Monday press conference, and restaurants and bars across the Twin Cities responded to the news with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Walz ordered dining rooms and bars closed beginning March 17 to help slow the spread of COVID-19, and lifted restrictions effective Monday, stipulating that dining and drinking take place outdoors on a reservation-only basis and with no more than 50 guests at a time.
A tour of the Twin Cities Monday found most restaurants and bars still boarded up and/or vandalized, and many others simply closed. But business was brisk at Smoke In The Pit Take Out, which sits a half block up from the Cup Foods deli on 38th and Chicago, where George Floyd was killed at the hands of the Minneapolis police on May 25.
“I’ve been here seven years, and when I went into business, I made it a carry-out, not a sit-down dine-in. And when COVID hit, it hit me real good,” said Dwight Alexander, owner of Smoke In The Pit Take Out, Monday afternoon. “So I didn’t have to go through the system and close down, and [the pandemic] actually boosted my business.
“Now this happened. I know the Cup people and I know George. You know, George came in and ate all the time. He stopped in and ate and we’d talk, but I didn’t really get to know George like most people did. He was always respectful when he came in my shop, so I would never say he was a bad person; when I talked to him he was a nice person. But I did know what he liked to eat, and he tried different things every time; whatever he had a taste for that day, that’s what he ate. I’m known for my smoked wings; of course my ribs; catfish, fried wings, macaroni and cheese, fried spaghetti, greens. We don’t have waste here, everything goes out the door.”
In the course of one week and against the unprecedented backdrop of two historic crises occurring simultaneously, the intersection of 38th and Chicago has become the epicenter of the world. Alexander vowed that he and and Smoke In The Pit are here to stay.
“I’m not moving,” he said. “Both of these things … you could say business has doubled. I told the neighborhood that I was going to stay here no matter what the situation was. I ain’t going nowhere. I gave ‘em my word — I’m staying here.”
A few minutes later Monday afternoon, over at Merlin’s Rest Pub, two tables of outdoor drinkers happily quaffed suds in the afternoon sun. But pub owner Tracie Munce wasn’t in the mood to talk about business or beer.
“I’m gutted,” said Munce, owner of Merlin’s, which sits a mile up E. Lake Street from the torched Third Precinct police building and amid blocks and blocks of destruction and graffiti. “My whole community has been affected. I grieve for the community. “Obviously, George Floyd’s death [overshadows everything else].”
“It feels awesome to be sitting on the patio with a cold beer,” said Gillian Millunzi, sitting with her date, Marshall Lemmer, at Merlin’s Rest. “This is what Minnesota is all about in the summertime, and we’ve kind of been deprived of it a little bit.”
“It’s really nice to out and relax and have a beer,” said Lemmer. “I support the movement, and all this tense craziness that’s happening now, it’s nice to have that refreshing homey feel of being able to sit down and have a beer.”
A few miles northeast, The Birchwood Café, one of the first area restaurants to embrace the Black Lives Matter movement, was closed for business Monday but will reopen Wednesday for curbside service, according to its website.
Over in St. Paul, a smattering of patio diners and drinkers dotted Grand Avenue and West 7th Street.
“I haven’t been really waiting for this,” said Ryanne Quirk, who was dining outside at Shish Mediterranean Kitchen with her daughter Kalia. “We live by the Third Precinct. We were out and we just wanted something to eat, and we were surprised to find an outdoor patio. We just moved one table down away from the family that’s sitting over there, and I’m glad we did because before it was too close. I’m glad it’s spread out, I’m glad it’s outside. I think if it was much more full we wouldn’t be here. We’d go sit in the car. I think we all still have to be really careful.”
“Patio Is Open!” read the sign over at Tom Reid’s Hockey City Pub in downtown St. Paul, where several tables of drinkers took advantage of the gorgeous summer weather as hostess Samantha Engesether seated patrons. “Today’s been good,” she said. “People seem happy to be out, but it’s been eerie because of the weekend and all that. I think we were one of the only ones opening around here; I know some other places are opening at 3. But we’re closing early for the evening just in case something does happen, because we need to ensure the safety of our customers.”
One of the gloomiest scenes was at Coalition in Edina, where a few diners sat at tables under tents in the parking lot.
At Apoy Filipino Bistro in south Minneapolis, three tables of grateful diners happily munched and drank away Monday afternoon on Nicollet Avenue in south Minneapolis.
“We love restaurants and being able to eat out,” said Camdin Gray, who drank and ate with his date, Melissa Azul, at Apoy. “We came to Apoy before COVID happened, and when we heard it was reopening, we wanted to come support it.”
“It feels fantastic. We love to go out to eat, so at the first opportunity to come out, we came out,” said Azul.
A tour of downtown Minneapolis, Eat Street and Uptown revealed no outdoor dining action, though some restaurants were considering opening later in the afternoon and evening.
Finally, perhaps the most accurate story of the current restaurant and bar landscape is told by the non-scene that was not happening Monday afternoon at the corridor of what is arguably the busiest outdoor-dining intersection in the Twin Cities, where the normally bustling sidewalk patios and streets outside Brit’s Pub, The Local, and The Dakota in downtown Minneapolis were empty.