Perspective: I’m Thankful For Pittsburgh Restaurants

PM Dining Critic Hal B. Klein on the current inflection point for Pittsburgh restaurants and bars.
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PHOTOS BY LAURA PETRILLA

As the Pennsylvania legislative session draws to a close, Harrisburg has the option to use a portion of its remaining $1.3 billion in CARES Act funding to provide financial stability for stakeholders in the state’s restaurant industry. Instead, it appears legislators are choosing to transfer the entirety of those funds to balance the budget, leaving restaurant operators and employees (as well as salon owners, hospitals, social service workers and a myriad of others) to fend for themselves.

Simultaneously, Gov. Tom Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine are adding restrictions to an already highly regulated restaurant landscape. While the measures are the right thing to do in terms of being science-based and in the best interest of public health as viral loads spike and people are tempted to gather for the holidays, they also tighten the noose around the restaurant industry.

Without any help, can Pittsburgh restaurants and the people who work in them make it through what likely will be a long, dark winter?

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Restaurant industry workers — the chefs, servers, bartenders, dishwashers and others who facilitate a good time for the rest of us — are among the people who are suffering the most right now. Between the direct communication I’ve had with people who work in Pittsburgh restaurants and what I’ve seen on social media, it’s clear to me that this is an economic and mental health crisis point. People who have invested time building their careers have seen them put on a hard pause, and a growing number are considering leaving the profession altogether.

When they’re on the job, servers and hosts often are the people tasked with enforcing public-health mandates and that sometimes has been met with hostile pushback. Even at establishments where patrons are doing the bare minimum, such as wearing a mask while walking to their table or the restroom, servers still risk exposure to the coronavirus because eating and drinking are by nature maskless activities; that’s mentally taxing no matter how many precautions you take. Because of the unjust financial structure of the tipped minimum wage, front-of-house employees remain at the mercy of the customer (and there are far fewer of them right now) for the bulk of their wages. Restaurant workers don’t have the option to say no if they are called back to a workplace that feels unsafe because they will lose what scant unemployment benefits are offered to them if they do.

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It’s infuriating to see a smattering of restaurant owners, including some I used to respect, defying the rules. I write this with a sense of empathy and understanding that just about everyone who owns a restaurant is trying to do their best to keep the doors open as long as they can. But for the ones that disrespect the guidelines because they think COVID-19 is just sort of like the flu: Do you feel the short-term gain you had from a moment of so-called protest is worth it now that we are in a deeper, far worse second wave? Do you feel like refusing to disclose that you are shutting down — or, worse, not shutting down — when there are COVID outbreaks in your establishments is acceptable?

I have an abundance of respect for the owners that are doing their best to stay afloat while being transparent, looking after employees and playing by the rules. They have spent the past eight months sinking money into overhead such as food, rent and utilities, and experiencing the psychological damage of laying off people while wondering what the next turn might be and how soon it is coming. People see their integrity.

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So what can we do?

Keep getting takeout, of course, from your favorite restaurants. If you’re not already doing so, also ask yourself what establishments you haven’t been thinking about, especially those with BIPOC and women owners, and support them, too. Try to find places that are buying their ingredients from local farmers and ranchers so that you’re keeping as much money in the local food system as possible. Work to support places that are supporting their staff. Tip at least 5 percent more than you think you should.

But that’s just a band-aid, even if it’s a nice one for everyone involved.

What restaurants need is immediate targeted financial relief. There needs to be quick legislative action to pay restaurant and bar owners to stay closed or partially closed for on-premise consumption and operate primarily as takeout establishments. The Pennsylvania legislature still is in session for a few more days, and it’s not too late to call your representatives. More importantly, we need to pressure the federal government to support the Restaurants Act, which would provide grants to independent restaurant, bar and catering business owners to cover the projected disparity in revenue in 2020 from that of 2019. That money could be used to cover payroll, supplies and rent, among other applications. Any restaurant employees who have lost their jobs to COVID-19 or don’t want to expose themselves to the risk of contracting it ought to have the financial security to stay safe at home for the duration of the crisis.

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I love Pittsburgh restaurants and bars. I love gathering with groups of friends getting rowdy at Chengdu Gourmet and I love sitting alone with a book late in the evening at Ritter’s Diner, eating grilled cheese and french fries. I love foodventures that take me to establishments such as Ladybird’s Luncheonette and Back To The Foodture, and how those restaurants were every bit as good as I hoped they would be. I love the way Spork pushes its boundaries every year and the way Bitter Ends Luncheonette moves local farmers to offer their best each growing season. I love the ebb and flow of running into friends, of casual conversations, on Sunday nights at Apteka and Allegheny Wine Mixer. I love cocktails at tina’s and karaoke at Bob’s Garage. I love the glow I feel at Dish Osteria and Bar, the place that feels like a home away from home when those fresh sardines and that bowl of rigatoni alla scamorza is set on the copper bar. I miss all of that profoundly. I bet you feel the same way about your favorite places.

There is hope on the horizon with what seem to be at least three safe and effective vaccines, but it’s still going to be some time before we get back to anything close to normal. As public health recommendations dictate, establishments should have the option, if they choose so, to remain open for augmented outdoor dining. But that’s not very practical in wintertime Pittsburgh, and all those igloos, yurts and other walled-in structures are just indoor dining with a different name. With the dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases over the past few weeks, indoor dining, even at partial capacity, is just a bad idea right now. Perhaps it won’t be again in the not-too-far-off future. Still, with a large enough share of our population rooted in a misguided, recalcitrant belief that adhering to some elementary public health practices is a socialist scheme of government control or whatever the fantasy of the day is, it doesn’t seem that we will be able to tamper down the virus without a significant shift in perspective that it is just as important to care about strangers as it is to care about yourself. House parties and other large indoor gatherings are setting us back, too.

Even if we are all so-so-so tired of doing it, we all need to do it to adhere to best practice public safety measures. We are in this together, and together we can do our part to keep Pittsburgh restaurants and bars alive.

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