Wilmington kicks off City Restaurant Week as COVID restrictions lift

After last year’s event was canceled, Wilmington restaurant owners are celebrating the return of the weeklong event, eager to welcome back customers.

Silvio Garbati is the owner of Café Verdi, a 65-seat Italian eatery in Wilmington, Delaware. (Courtesy of Silvio Garbati)

Silvio Garbati is the owner of Café Verdi, a 65-seat Italian eatery in Wilmington, Delaware. (Courtesy of Silvio Garbati)

Sunday was Café Verdi’s first time participating in City Restaurant Week in Wilmington.

For the Trolley Square Italian restaurant, the event is a sign that the industry is starting to come back to a new normal as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes.

Following a year focused on takeout and delivery, the restaurant is now welcoming more dine-in customers.

“It was fantastic to see their faces, seeing our regulars coming in and calling our names, and I called their names,” said owner Joseph Speciale.

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“Sometimes we get a little emotional, because it’s been over a year since I’ve seen them. They ordered, but there was more delivery. So a lot of our clients that normally would have come in are starting to come back. And it’s a great feeling. We’re a big family. With regulars coming back, it’s like relatives coming back after not having seen them in over a year.”

Last year’s City Restaurant Week was canceled due to the pandemic. This year, food lovers can enjoy in-person prix-fixe dining at $15 for lunch and $35 for dinner through Friday.

The event comes as Delaware and the surrounding states loosen COVID-19 restrictions and lift mask requirements for vaccinated people.

“I think since the moment that the governor announced that restaurants could open back up to full capacity and the CDC announced that fully vaccinated individuals could go into public places without wearing a mask, I think it really signaled sort of a beginning for restaurants,” said Carrie Leishman, president and CEO of the Delaware Restaurant Association.

“We dine out, before the pandemic anyway, at least once a day, 50% of us. And when people couldn’t go out, they couldn’t see their friends, they couldn’t do business, they couldn’t be with their families in a way by going out to restaurants, it really was hard for people,” she said. “So I think that’s why we see such a resurgence of people wanting to dine out as sort of the beginning or belief that everything may get back to normal quicker than you think.”

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Joe Vanhorn, who owns Chelsea Tavern on Market Street, said his restaurant returned to about 50% of pre-pandemic operations well before restaurant week began. But he said it feels good to participate in an event again.

“Where we don’t see people back yet is lunch, so I’m curious to see how lunch goes, if it draws anybody back, because there’s still relatively very small workforce downtown, as far as the banks and insurance companies, and the Grand and the Queen, all those places are still working from home, and I think that’s where we see the biggest impact of the pandemic,” Vanhorn said.

“People still live downtown, so our night business, although affected, was not as bad, and to-go was up … We’ll see what restaurant week does, but our business is coming back. It’s just coming back differently, more takeout and dinner than lunch.”

Though customers are returning to restaurants, these businesses still face challenges, Leishman said. Restaurants are having a difficult time filling open positions, for many reasons: restaurants reopened at the same time, some workers have issues getting childcare, and many people are making more money on federal unemployment than they would on restaurant wages and tips.

“There’s a reluctance to come back to work among many people in our communities.  And we really have to change that,” Leishman said. “I have restaurants every day that are closing down on certain days of the week or shifts because they simply can’t work people seven days a week. They don’t have enough workers. It really will hamper the growth and sort of the recovery of our industry.”

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