Things seem nearly normal at Ivar’s Salmon House on this sunny June late afternoon. As always, some lucky patrons arrive at the Seattle dining institution by boat, tying up at the dock on glittering north Lake Union. On the adjacent deck, diners drink beer and white wine at umbrella-shaded tables. If the servers wearing face masks and surgical gloves are absent for a moment, it seems like just another gorgeous almost-summer day in one of the prettiest cities on the planet, with business as usual at one of its biggest restaurants.
One small telltale: the moribund flowers in the planter boxes. Ivar’s President Bob Donegan says that King County’s move to a modified Phase 1 reopening of businesses in the midst of the coronavirus crisis happened so fast — the interim step was announced last Friday — they haven’t yet found time for gardening. There was furniture to be moved: The tables, in the past convivially cheek-by-jowl, have been sedately spaced to the 50% capacity currently allowed outdoors. Inside, the bilevel layout and warm alder half-walls mostly obscure the fact that only 25% of usual seating is available, per governor’s orders; evidence in the form of 27 disused tables and 111 chairs is stacked in a half-lit banquet room, behind a heavy door.
On a pre-coronavirus pandemic day, Ivar’s Salmon House could serve 692 diners at full capacity, inside and out. That capaciousness means reopening for dining-in can make financial sense here now, while many smaller restaurants wait for Phase 2 or beyond because the potential profits from such limited service don’t pencil out. Fans have been eagerly waiting — Donegan says they’ve gotten dozens of calls and emails asking when dining would return, and even boaters debarking to inquire. On Monday, the day they reopened, people were lined up for lunch service, wanting to be the first back inside.
The Salmon House has been able to bring back 80% of its staff, albeit at attenuated hours for the time being. A more manageable single-sheet menu of most-popular dishes — clam chowder, wild salmon dinners, fish ‘n’ chips — gets recycled after a single use for sanitation’s sake. Those who grew up in Seattle remember the restaurant’s old-timey deep-sea-diver paper masks with jokes and puzzles on the back, but kids right now aren’t getting them because of the need to wear real masks.
Ivar’s staff, Donegan says, has undergone COVID-19 prevention training with a seven-page operating manual, and they get their temperature taken at the start of each shift. Servers change gloves after every customer interaction, while one worker is devoted to wiping down handrails, doors, bathroom surfaces and more. Salt and pepper shakers and the like are out; single-serve condiment packets are in. The sole table accoutrement is a candle, which bussers move from one side to the other to indicate when a sanitizing wipedown has taken place.
A new Purell dispenser stands near the entry, where hosts have been trained to encourage customers to wear masks when not at the table. They’ve got extras to give out, and at a time when coronavirus infection rates in many recently reopened states are resurging, they feel this is necessary. Donegan estimates that 25% of customers are walking in without masks. “Not everyone is as concerned as we are,” he says. “It confuses us a little bit.”
Consulted by phone, King County’s head of food safety Eyob Mazengia says the county has carried out more than 7,800 spot-checks of restaurants since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, and has found safety compliance “exceptionally high,” up to 96%. “Restaurants want to protect patrons and workers,” he says. The problems they’ve seen, he says, are largely on the part of customers — “congregating or getting too close,” exhibiting “failure to maintain social distancing.” At a time when masks are considered among the primary coronavirus prevention measures, he’s “surprised” — and not pleasantly so — to hear that a quarter of Salmon House patrons are arriving bare-faced. “Definitely wear masks while you are out and about,” he reiterates.
Ivar’s motto is “Keep clam,” and Salmon House hosts have been trained in how to defuse situations where anyone refuses a mask, and when to escalate matters to a manager. That hasn’t happened yet. “People have been very cooperative,” Donegan says.
Bar seating isn’t allowed under modified Phase 1, and the chairs that should be all along the gleaming copper bartop in the Whalemaker Lounge lean awkwardly against a dividing wall. (The whalemakers — two petrified whale phalluses that stand several feet high, from the sea-memorabilia collection of famously-oddball founder Ivar Haglund — still have pride of place, looming above the taps at the center of the bar.) Servers joke around while picking up drinks — regular waitstaff stuff, except for a tangent about masks. “I’m smiling right now!” one says.
Back by the host stand, a family is leaving, exclaiming with delight at dining out again. “The timing couldn’t be more perfect!” one of them says. They’re all masked up. Then, close on their heels, another family departs — no masks.