Last week we stopped at Prego, a Georgian-owned Italian restaurant, for an extra-large pizza paradiso, a delicate thin crust brushed with a light tomato sauce and baked, then topped with thin slices of ham, fresh tomatoes and shredded lettuce, and sprinkled with fresh parmesan. For summer, there isn’t a more refreshing pizza pie.
We were the only seated customers and had to wait around 30 minutes for the kitchen to finish an enormous two-scooter delivery order. We might have grumbled had this not been July 2020, when a global pandemic has every restaurant owner in the country gnawing their fingernails to stubs. We were happy to see that our favorite place for pizza was serving at all.
“We only get about four or five tables a day,” the manager told us. “Everything is delivery.”
Delivery or nothing at all, it seems. Later, walking in Lower Vera we passed a vacant Pepperboy waiting to open, the planters in front of the bay window were full of tall dead weeds. In Sololaki, we walked our dog past the shuttered Black Dog Bar, one among many pubs that has been closed since mid-March and won’t be able to reopen until it is safe to squeeze between a pair of strangers, belly up to the bar and shout your order over the hubbub. Betsy’s Hotel has also been waiting months for the storm to pass and will not try to reopen until regular flights return to Georgia, which the government announced won’t happen until September 1. Most of us aren’t holding our breaths, as it’s the second time flights have been postponed.
“We can’t afford to staff the place for the random domestic tourist,” hotel owner Steve Johnson said.
Restaurants with outdoor seating have a huge edge, for sure, but it’s no guarantee of success. Chef Tekuna Gachechiladze complained that her exclusively outdoor Cafe Littera is “struggling a lot.” Her latest restaurant, Republika 24, opened just before the pandemic and was an instant hit. Now, even with sidewalk tables, she has had to reduce hours to remain open.
While people worry over a lack of customers, Zura Natroshvili, owner of the idiosyncratic Bina 37, a spacious 8th floor apartment space with a huge terrace and wine cellar in the sky, cannot accommodate the parties that want to book a table. “Each and every day we get requests for groups of ten to 15 people who want to sit together. By regulation we can only seat six per table, and they refuse to come,” he explained.
On July 20, the government lifted restrictions on social events such as weddings, funerals and parties of less than 100 people, yet restaurants must continue limiting tables to six people. As if reopening an eatery under rigid restrictions isn’t hard enough, the Tbilisi hospitality sector must also deal with the annual summertime exodus from the capital in August. Without tourists, Tbilisi will look much like it did in 2008, when approaching Russian tanks emptied the city streets.
For the owners of Ezo, the pandemic has provided a time of reflection. They have been closely observing other establishments’ experiences, and reassessing their business model. Owners Gio Lomsadze and Kristo Talakhadze recently opened with a new menu better suited for motor scooter delivery. They want to be more than a cool restaurant and are aiming to host a weekly organic farmer’s market in the courtyard.
Dadi Wine Bar is also doing some tweaking to adapt to the new reality. Co-owner Dina Ramazanova offers Saturday brunches and has begun “farmer’s dinner” events, where regional farmers bring their fresh produce to Dadi and Dina prepares a special supper with it. “It attracts people,” she said.
Most restaurants, however, are simply striving to do what they do best in the hopes that the pandemic will somehow soon blow over.
Most restaurants, however, are simply striving to do what they do best in the hopes that the pandemic will somehow soon blow over. While the virus has been mostly contained in Georgia, it is not over yet. For weeks we had seen daily cases in single digits, but on July 22, the number spiked to 24. Monica Mosidze, co-owner of Alubali, reported that no one came to the restaurant that day; otherwise, business has been “okay.”
“The restaurant is not full, but guests are coming anyway,” Monica said. “It’s a lot of work to follow the new instructions and regulations. We are just happy to be opened.”
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