Did L.A. restaurants open too soon? One restaurant says yes

Nathaniel Muñoz in Bar Avalon's bodega space on March 27, 2020.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

In early March, two weeks before the coronavirus shut down L.A. dining rooms — before the new reality of disposable menus, face-shield-wearing servers and robot waiters — I wrote an enthusiastic review of Bar Avalon in Echo Park.

In the review, I praised the comfortable, relaxed quality of the dining room, with its faded brick walls and exposed wooden trusses, and the way the warm, pneumatic reverb of the blues songs playing over the speakers made the space feel alive.

I mooned over chef Joshua Guarneri’s admirable roast chicken with fried parsnips, and the revelatory pairing of a pork chop with minced nopales and pickled green tomatoes. The cooking was smart, elegant and frequently delicious, and general manager and sommelier Nathaniel Muñoz reigned over the dining room with the kind of easygoing hospitality that made you wonder whether he’d confused you with an old friend. (Somewhere in a file folder bulging with crinkled restaurant receipts and takeaway menus I still have the Tony Gwynn baseball card that Muñoz paper-clipped to my bill, a random parting token that I found charming.)

Thinking back on those dinners at Bar Avalon, I understand why some people are eager to dine out, even as coronavirus cases climb in Southern California. Restaurants are magnets of pleasure and community; our lives have been poorer without them.

Customers enjoy company, wine and dinner at Avalon Bar on Friday, Feb, 28, 2020.
Guests enjoy company, wine and dinner at Bar Avalon in Echo Park on Feb, 28, 2020.
(Silvia Razgova / For The Times)

But are they safe?

This week we heard that 50% of L.A. County restaurants visited by health department officials over the weekend were in violation of new COVID-19 safety regulations. We saw reports of people crowding restaurants and bars over the weekend in San Diego and Arizona. We heard stories about restaurant employees who have been thrust into the role of mask enforcers.

That all prompted Muñoz of Bar Avalon, which is currently open for takeout and delivery, to email me this week with his concerns over the fast pace of L.A. restaurant reopenings.

We got on the phone to talk about why he thinks restaurants should hit pause on their plans. This interview has been edited for length.

What was your reaction when you heard that 50% of restaurants visited by health inspectors this past weekend were not in compliance with new guidelines?

I was dismayed. It’s irresponsible for restaurant and hotel owners to ask their employees to return to work in the midst of a health crisis as infectious as COVID-19 without operational procedures, training and equipment.

Yes, the public is being asked to wear a face covering, but this is not enough.


What are some of the concerns you’ve been hearing from restaurant workers?

Unfortunately, I have heard a number of my colleagues sharing stories of confusion, fear and intimidation. Sommeliers are being asked to surrender positions because they don’t feel comfortable serving the public just yet, servers are returning to work with two-hour notice without training or procedural guidance, and managers report a lapse of guidance from health officials.

Nathaniel Muñoz pours a glass of sparkling rose.
Bar Avalon general manager and sommelier Nathaniel Muñoz pours a glass of sparkling rosé for customers on Friday, Feb, 28, 2020.
(Silvia Razgova / For The Times)

Bar Avalon is currently open for takeout and delivery only. Can you walk us through the decision to keep the dining room closed for now?

The risks completely outweigh the rewards.

As long as we keep our costs manageable, we hope we can outlast the current threat and open as case counts decrease.

Someone very wise told me, “This fish that stops moving dies.” I think this can easily describe how many people view their market share in the restaurant industry. But a hurried, irresponsible opening could be disastrous.

What would make you feel comfortable enough to reopen for dine-in service?

For as long as I can remember, there has always been a stamp of approval on restaurants. The infamous blue “A” in the window or green “B” or the orange “C.”

How is the health department not at the forefront of the push to open restaurants? Where is the adapted COVID-19 “A, B and C” that states that a restaurant has met the necessary standards as a facility and is practicing responsible sanitary habits to protect public health?

With restaurants closed, what were these inspectors doing? Were they not planning for the reopening? They should be working closely with other government entities and departments to facilitate an industrywide standard and protocol to follow in order to ensure public safety.

Instead, they are absent to the call, and who knows how many countless diners were exposed to this virus?

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What will you be eating on Father’s Day?

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It’s my husband’s first Father’s Day, which calls for making a special breakfast. I’m wavering between a big platter of chilaquiles, a full English breakfast, or this recipe for a cheesy, savory bread pudding with sausage and gravy (because life is so very short). Also, we published a story this week about the history of Juneteenth in Los Angeles, from which I learned that Phillips Bar-B-Que is offering a special Juneteenth menu this weekend, and also celebrating its 40th anniversary. I’m planning to call ahead for some rib tips.

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Our stories

— Happy Juneteenth weekend. Adrian Miller writes about the long history of Juneteenth celebrations in Los Angeles, and the passionate Texan named Jonathan Leonard who helped popularize the holiday in Southern California.

— As more restaurants reopen, Lucas Kwan Peterson writes about how some restaurant workers are facing a lose-lose proposition.

— The L.A. Times asked epidemiologists and physicians about the risks of shopping and eating out. Here’s what they said.

Garrett Snyder reports on some prominent restaurant closings, a new English-muffin-themed cafe in Glendale, and the next big move from Wes Avila of Guerrilla Tacos.

— In case you’re wondering, here’s what dining at L.A. restaurants looks like right now.

— If you’re staying in this weekend, I humbly recommend kitchen time with Ben Mims’ low-stakes dinner recipes.

— This week I profiled the work of Danielle Elizabeth Stevens and Rogelio Hernandez, two L.A. chefs who are taking direct action to support the Black Lives Matter movement and fight systemic racism, one home-cooked meal at a time.

— Finally, in case you missed it, Genevieve Ko has a terrific interview with former opera singer turned restaurateur (and author) Alexander Smalls.

Berbere-spiced plantain and chili-lime smashed black bean tacos by chef Danielle Elizabeth Stevens.
Berbere-spiced plantain and chili-lime smashed black bean tacos with sliced avocado, a purple cabbage and carrot Caribbean slaw, pickled purple onion, vegan queso fresco, chermoula, and crispy jalapenos by chef Danielle Elizabeth Stevens. Stevens and her partner, Mel Aliya, recently launched an initiative called #WeStillGottaEat, which provides free meals to Black residents in Los Angeles.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)