Mar 31, 2022 - Food and Drink

D.C. work lunches are slowly returning

Illustration of a briefcase made out of a restaurant check holder.
Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Downtown restaurants are slowly welcoming office workers back to lunch.

Why it matters: For two years, restaurants in the heart of the city have been hollowed out, as their core customer base -- office employees, work from home. Now that Omicron has crested,  and some people are returning to offices downtown, restaurateurs hope that weekday lunch rebounds.    

What’s happening: We reached out to over a dozen popular downtown lunch spots to hear how business has been going. 

What they’re saying: Some restaurant owners say sales increased after the Omicron surge, and in some cases this month are exceeding those from last summer and fall, both times when COVID cases were low.

  • Chef Amy Brandwein, who owns Centrolina and Piccolina, says the lunch crowd has almost reached pre-pandemic levels. She expects March 2022 lunch sales to be up 50% compared to last July.
  • John Grace, The Hamilton’s general manager, saw a 46% increase in lunch sales from January to February and a 26% increase from February to March. Grace called lunch service “crucial” to the restaurant’s success, and says they’re also nearing pre-pandemic levels.
  • Little Sesame co-founder Nick Wiseman says March 2022 has been the restaurant’s best month since the pandemic began, but sales still haven’t reached pre-pandemic levels.

Zoom in: sweetgreen says it’s specifically seen an increase in Outpost orders, which is explicitly for offices, over the last few months. The D.C.-founded fast-casual salad restaurant tells Axios it has over 150 D.C. Outpost locations with more on the way.

Yes, but: Ashok Bajaj, a D.C. restaurateur who owns nearly a dozen restaurants, tells Axios that some of his restaurants are still closed for lunch. Part of the reason he’s kept two of his mainstays open — Rasika and Bombay Club — is to keep his staff employed.

“I don’t think many downtown restaurants can survive if the workers don’t come back to the offices,” Bajaj said.

  • Other downtown restaurants, including Kaz Sushi Bistro and newly-opened SHŌTŌ, have followed suit in closing for lunch.
  • Bourbon Steak just reopened for lunch this week.

Of note: Restaurants in residential areas have been steadily busy. Popular bagel shop Call Your Mother has opened six new locations since the pandemic began, most of which are outside of D.C.’s central district. It’s also added dinner service at its Pike & Rose location.

The bottom line: Lifted restaurant capacity, mask and vaccine restrictions coupled with fewer COVID cases have helped downtown restaurants bounce back at lunchtime, but full recovery hinges on the return of office workers.

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