Athens-Clarke County and the state of Georgia have loosened some of their laws governing alcohol licenses for restaurants and bars, giving those businesses at least a fighting chance to survive the COVID-19 pandemic after sheltering-in-place brought them to a virtual standstill.
Restaurateurs developed creative ways to safely lure customers out of their homes, creating new menu and beverage options to tempt diners hungry for something more interesting than a frozen meal and a beer in front of a Netflix movie (or even worse, for some, their own cooking).
Even drink offerings were tweaked to respond to the crisis. Many restaurant owners began to trim their wine lists and offer only the most popular selections, dispensing with the need to inventory higher-priced specialty choices. Since many restaurants feature outdoor seating, bartenders began offering cocktails for al fresco drinking, especially for those waiting for their curbside carryout. Restaurants are also offering wines at lower prices compared to on-premises drinking when purchased to go, recognizing that they are competing with liquor store pricing.
While all restaurateurs have acknowledged taking in far lower revenues since the beginning of the COVID crisis, some say that they are breaking even and call that a win. All say they are mostly glad to keep some of their employees working and the doors open, and hope for better days to return. The beverage program helps add to their bottom line.
At Heirloom Café and Fresh Market, owners Travis Burch and Jessica Rothacker are serving dinners on the restaurant’s newly expanded terrace along with their abbreviated wine list, which highlights Kate Arnold wines in honor of their Boulevard neighbors. Heirloom has also created “cocktails for two” for those waiting for their curbside deliveries.
Last Resort owners Jaamy Zarnegar and Melissa Clegg have added a new twist to carry-out by deconstructing dishes, including ingredients separately and then providing a printed card with instructions on how to assemble the dish, to come close to duplicating the on-premises presentation. They have also adopted a new wine list with special off-premises pricing to complement their dishes. For those who want to socially distance in an outdoor environment, the restaurant has converted its much-coveted parking spaces to a fenced-in courtyard planted with large trees.
The National’s general manager, Erin Wilson, reports that in-house mixologists have been creatively adapting traditional cocktails to include lower-proof spirits, making them legal for carryout. The restaurant has been bottling and labeling the new craft cocktails, complementing the restaurant’s bespoke brand. Wilson says that “bar managers have taken familiar classics and reinvented them” for carry-out. “Our bartenders are doing a new take on the traditional Negroni,” she says. “Where we would normally use gin, we are using aperol,” a classic Italian bitter aperitif.
The popular raw bar Seabear, noted for its close quarters and spirited atmosphere, has adapted to social distancing on its generously sized and shaded terrace, much of which features a roof to protect patrons from frequent late-afternoon downpours. The bar program, led by co-owner Noah Brendel, once again features its Negroni slushy and other cocktails. Brendel has also created a wine club for regular customers, and has streamlined the list of suppliers to keep costs low. Since customers are dining outdoors in frequently hot temperatures, Brendel adds that the chefs have created refreshing treats like chilled Thai split pea soup. “COVID has forced us to change things up,” Brendel says. “It’s been a challenge, but a welcome one.”
Next door in the Bottleworks, Viva! co-owner Jessie Lindsey has cranked up the slushy machine salvaged from the downtown Taco Stand’s closure, and is serving up his handmade fruit juice and spirits slushies.
Expat co-owner and sommelier Krista Mason says the restaurant has adapted its front parking area as an outdoor dining terrace, which features a large chalkboard for the menu. The restaurant now offers a focused list of craft-made classic cocktails the restaurant is known for, such as the spritz, daiquiri and 50-50 Martini, which Mason says is more refreshing and lighter than the traditional gin-heavy favorite, and is truer to the cocktail’s 19th Century origins. The restaurant sold out of its wine inventory in the early days of COVID customers, and has since created a streamlined, retail-priced wine list for curbside delivery.
Bars are also adapting. Normal Bar and Automatic Pizza owner Bain Mattox reports good business selling pizzas and alcohol to their socially-distanced customers on the Normal Bar patio. “We’re lucky to be able to offer what we have with the space we have,” Mattox says, adding that customers are required to wear masks when they order beverages at the back door. Mattox says that Normal Bar has also streamlined its offering, and asks patrons to gather in smaller groups. “We all just have to get through this,” he says. “After this is all over, hopefully we will all still be here.”
Bars and restaurants may soon have another way to adapt. The state legislature passed a bill last month allowing delivery of alcohol, which at press time was awaiting Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature.“During this COVID, a lot of people have been getting their groceries delivered, and they’re like, ‘Hey, if we’re not going out to get exposed, why not get our beer and wine delivered, too?” state Sen. Bill Cowsert (R-Athens) told the Georgia Recorder.
Like what you just read? Support Flagpole by making a donation today. Every dollar you give helps fund our ongoing mission to provide Athens with quality, independent journalism.