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Orange tier of reopening from coronavirus brings ‘pure hope’ to La Jolla restaurants

Mermaids & Cowboys is open at 1251 Prospect St. in The Village.
(Courtesy)

La Jolla may have a climate that makes it possible to dine outdoors year-round, but that doesn’t mean local restaurants are turning down the opportunity to bring patrons back indoors.

San Diego County entered the orange tier of the state’s coronavirus reopening framework April 7, further easing restrictions and allowing more indoor activities. Among the changes is that indoor seating at restaurants and at bars that serve food has expanded to a maximum 50 percent of capacity, or 200 people, whichever is fewer. And the 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew has been lifted.

The county previously was in the red tier, which allowed 25 percent indoor capacity or 100 people, and before that, the most-restrictive purple tier, which allowed outdoor dining only.

Being in the orange tier “is pure hope,” according to Mermaids & Cowboys owner Michael Matthews. “This is the first time we’re heading in the right direction twice [after being able to open last year and then needing to close again]. It’s felt like one step forward, two steps back in the past. Now we are going in the right direction with two less-restrictive tiers in a row. The positive takeaway is the hope that getting into the orange tier gives us.”

Tiers graphic
Here are the differences among the purple, red and orange tiers of California’s coronavirus reopening framework. As of April 12, capacity limits on places of worship are recommendations but not requirements.

Mermaids & Cowboys opened in October on Prospect Street and decided not to offer takeout or delivery during the pandemic.

“We wanted the first impression to be top-notch,” Matthews said. “So we wanted to make sure we held out until the red tier and orange tier to offer that A-plus experience. We just wanted to survive the purple tier.”

Now that it has, the challenge is hiring and training staff when many have sought employment elsewhere or are not looking to take a job that involves being face to masked face with people.

“We’re taking full advantage of the orange tier,” Matthews said. “We had an open-air concept, so that helped us and made it salvageable. But we are starting from scratch again. We didn’t have any heads up that we would reopen; we were glued to our TVs like everyone else to find out when we could open. Once we could, we started hiring and training our staff, so we couldn’t just reopen. Hiring has been a challenge because they aren’t rushing back to do these jobs.”

Mermaids & Cowboys is currently open from 4 to 10 p.m. daily, but plans are to open for brunch and then lunch in coming months.

Though California plans to allow indoor live events and performances to resume with capacity limitations starting Thursday, April 15, some of La Jolla’s performance venues are not ready to fling their doors open just yet.

At Nautilus Tavern, management took advantage of the pandemic to rework its menu and other offerings. But due to the design of the La Jolla Boulevard establishment, operating indoors is crucial.

“We’re doing events like trivia and movie screenings, street tacos, comedy and wine, and screening sporting events because we have 15 TVs,” said General Manager Nino Nunziante. “We brought on some new chefs and redid our menu, so we are in the middle between fine dining and a standard bar.”

He said management and staff are excited to be able to operate at 50 percent indoor capacity, “and people seem excited to be able to come back.”

Nunziante said the biggest challenge has been relaying to people what the current regulations allow. “People didn’t have the exact details — who can be inside, what can be open and when,” he said. “Thankfully we face the street, so people see us and could see when we are open.”

He echoed the challenge with hiring new staff members. “A lot of people in the food industry got other jobs, and it was tough for us to have a full staff then,” he said. “But now we are needing to hire more people.”

At Candor by Giuseppe, which was touted from its early days as an intimate space with just three dozen indoor seats, putting tables outdoors and creating a new delivery system have kept the lights on. But opening indoors, even at 50 percent capacity, is more in line with the tone the Torrey Pines Road restaurant would like to set.

“We had to understand what we had to do to keep the business alive,” said owner Giuseppe Ciuffa. “We were one of the first to do family-style and larger-scale delivery. We had to reinvent a formula that was working really well, so we had our own drivers so people wouldn’t have to go through third-party apps, and that was successful. But our first priority was not getting anyone on our staff sick. So we did what we had to do to make sure that didn’t happen.”

Now that Candor can bring more people indoors, “we’re celebrating the opportunity to do things like we used to. We’re launching a spring menu because it feels like, a year later, this is an opportunity to start fresh, and there couldn’t be a better season for that than spring.” ◆