Back in early March 2020, Ryan Santos was getting nervous. Talk of the coming coronavirus pandemic had turned serious, and the James Beard-nominated chef at Over-the-Rhine’s Please was thinking about the responsibility a restauranteur such as himself had to his guests, his staff, and himself in the face of unprecedented events.
“In the weeks leading up to the shutdown, there was a definite concern,” Santos says. “We actually had planned to close the following week, as myself and the staff were having trepidation about what was on the horizon or potentially already here. We have a lot of out-of-town guests and a lot who travel frequently.”
In the end, Please’s voluntary closure plan wasn’t necessary, as Ohio’s coronavirus shutdown soon put a pause on all of the state’s dining-in options. Though for all his insight and forward thinking, Santos couldn’t predict the long-lasting effects COVID-19 would eventually have on all of our lives. “No one really knew if this was gonna be a few weeks, a month or two, or what is now on the verge of a year-long pandemic,” he notes.
As the reality of the pandemic’s slow-burn effect took hold, though, the Please staff realized they had to make some hard choices. “At Please, we operate as a whole team,” explains Santos, who is himself immunocompromised. “It’s not just me making big decisions on operations without consulting the whole staff. The rule through this whole thing was, If I don’t feel comfortable being at the restaurant cooking and engaging with the public, I can’t then turn around and ask my staff to do the same. We planned to stay closed as long as needed for us to feel safe.”
Santos looked into outdoor dining, but the Please team didn’t see a clear return on investment from such a pivot. And, like a lot of people in the industry, he assumed assistance was coming for operations devastated by 2020’s hardships. “We imagined that at some point real relief for restaurants and small business was coming on the federal level,” he says. “As of today, it doesn’t appear that will be coming.”
After a couple of months of stretching his savings, cooking for people in private residences when opportunities arose, Santos decided that the best and safest course of action was to re-open Please—sort of. The restaurant resumed operations last month, executing a private-dining plan tentatively scheduled to run through March. With a staff limited to Santos and a server/sommelier, Please now offers an experience designed for maximum safety for all involved.
Guests enter through the side bar door, and go through the back bar area, where they stay for the entire experience. The dining room is curtained off, allowing only Santos and a server to have access and to keep a good distance from the guests. The restaurant requires guests to wear masks when entering, using restrooms, and leaving. Santos also installed a HEPA filter in the bar room equipped to handle a room much larger than it is, to keep fresh and filtered air circulating. Beyond standard COVID-19 safety and sanitizing standards, the restaurant asks guests to keep their silverware between courses, reuse their wine glasses, and limit beverage selections to wine, beer, or neat/rocks spirit pours.
“It’s all thought through as best as we could after watching what other restaurants did for the last nine months, taking those into consideration and figuring out what provides the best and safest experience you can have dining out right now—for guests and staff,” Santos says.
Please charges a flat fee of $1,000 for groups of up to eight (want to dine alone? The price remains the same), featuring one tasting menu (substitutions for dietary restrictions and allergies are, of course, accommodated) and an optional wine pairing or a la carte beverages. And there’s only one dining slot available each night for Thursday through Saturday (other nights of the week are available upon request).
Santos is the first to tell you that operating in-house dining at Please wasn’t his first choice, with the virus burning through Hamilton County with record reported infections. But after close to a year living off of his savings while waiting for assistance that never came, he decided the uber-safe “sort-of” opening was the best bet. And, until the restaurant industry finds its new normal, it’s what dining at Please is going to look like.
“As for now, we’re just going to rock this limited-service option until there’s some clarity on how things move forward,” he says.