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Phil’s Deli and Grill at the Original Farmer’s Market in Los Angeles
Phil’s Deli and Grill at the Original Farmer’s Market in Los Angeles
Wonho Frank Lee

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Six Angelenos Remember the Days Before the Pandemic Shut Down LA

One year after the closure of indoor dining in Los Angeles, Eater staff look back at the period that changed the industry forever

It’s been one year since the World Health Organization officially announced the COVID-19 pandemic, shifting everything in modern society as we know it. The restaurant world was one of the most impacted industries, scaling down dramatically both nationwide and here in Los Angeles. Eater editors recall the days leading up to restaurant closures, when national and local officials were waffling over what measures the country needed to take in order to stem the spread of the virus. It’s difficult to fathom how much the world, let alone dining and bar culture, has changed in the last year, though now face coverings, hand sanitizer, social distancing, and outdoor dining setups might be here to stay. Eater compiled the accounts of six staffers recounting the days leading up to the first shutdowns across Los Angeles, from buying extra canned goods to wondering why so many communities of color were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

Customer takes food away from Nightshade in Los Angeles, CA.
Customer takes food away from Nightshade in Los Angeles
Wonho Frank Lee

A year ago, in early March, my wife Rochelle and I took a glorious three-day trip to Valle de Guadalupe with some friends, enjoying the incredible testing menu at Fauna. When we got back, things really started to come apart. I implored my parents and family to stay safe. My sister had just given birth to her daughter, and my wife was planning to ramp up for a surge at the county hospital she worked in. A few days before March 15, Rochelle and I had one last meal in LA at Chateau Hanare, sharing the dining room with only one other party, though we still felt wary and decided to leave as soon as we finished eating.

Once the city and county shut down restaurant dining rooms, I was delighted to see how adept so many places were at moving to a takeout and delivery model. It meant that I would still be able to enjoy the amazing food in Los Angeles, albeit without some of the comforts of dining on-site. Going back to my archives, I remembered that I had one of the latest meals from Mei Lin’s Nightshade before she closed temporarily. Rochelle, Eater’s photographer Frank Lee, and I ate the meal on the hood of our car just outside Nightshade and it was pretty awesome. I thought this scenario would last three, maybe six months before the country’s lockdowns would lessen the spread.

In the first few weeks, it was a flurry of reporting, late nights, quick edits, and high levels of collaboration internally to report on the constant policy changes and the ways restaurants and people were adapting. It was exciting in one sense but also distressing to see how the pandemic was contributing to so much anxiety in the restaurant industry. —Matthew Kang, Eater LA editor

Dr. Barbara Ferrer leads a press conference in March, 2020
Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

On March 8, I stepped into our gorgeous new Northeast LA office, only one mile away from my home. There it was, a spacious workspace with the commute of my dreams. I could drive home within seven minutes or walk to one of LA’s best sandwich shops for lunch. That same night, I joined friends for a birthday dinner at El Cholo, where the bartender shook my hand before taking my order. I thought nothing of it until March 11, when we started to temporarily transition to remote work.

That same week, my colleague Meghan McCarron got my attention. She was insisting to everyone that we take a new approach to our coverage. One look at her face, and she was dead serious. I remember her saying, “We cannot continue to encourage people to go out and eat right now. This is a pandemic.”

In the coming weeks, the news moved so quickly, with unprecedented announcements. Restaurants started selling grocery staples. At Eater LA, we never listened to LA County health department briefings before March 2020. They are a regular part of our coverage now.

In those early days, stories became obsolete while I was in the middle of writing them. Gov. Gavin Newsom gave a press conference to announce something new, and a few hours later LA County Health Director Barbara Ferrer followed up with new tidbits, then Mayor Garcetti. We had to pay attention, since my phone was ringing constantly with DMs from scared restaurant owners who were unsure of what to do.

For the first time in years, I started keeping a journal. I took personal notes, screenshots of news clips, and social media. Those early days were uncertain. But our air quality in LA was breathtakingly clear. Friends invited me over for a group visit, insisting, “It’s okay! We’re safe.”

Reports kept coming in that said Black, Indigenous, and Latino people were disproportionately getting sick and dying from COVID-19. I bought a hammock and let it sway every night to help calm my anxiety. —Mona Holmes, Eater LA reporter

Bon Temps Arts District Los Angeles
Bon Temps, Arts District
Wonho Frank Lee

At the beginning of the first wave of lockdowns, mid-March 2020, it felt to me like the world was going on pause for a bit. “Bend the curve” was the rallying cry, punctuated by evening bangs on pots and pans to thank heroic health care workers. It all felt very serious, very scary, and in some ways very temporary. By the end of April, that hope for me was gone, replaced by a lengthy numbness as the city watched restaurants, their workers, and small businesses at large bear the brunt of government inaction. On April 29, Bon Temps — one of the nation’s most celebrated new restaurants — announced a permanent closure; Auburn, the fine dining restaurant on Melrose with just a year under its belt, did the same the next day.

By May there were important, heartbreaking anti-police brutality protests across the city; by July, Gov. Newsom had once again clamped down on restaurant dining rooms in order to save lives amid what (at that time) was seen as LA’s deadliest coronavirus surge. I hunkered down, again, glad to be safe and afraid for so many, reporting mostly from home or (at best) from a distance. That theme continues even today: Stay home, stay safe. It’s been over a year since I’ve eaten a meaningful sit-down meal at a restaurant, and as a journalist who covers it all, that’s beyond depressing. But I’m healthy and I’m still working, though never far from the enduring numbness that set in for the first time last April. —Farley Elliott, Eater LA senior editor

Canned bean shelves are empty at a Save Mart supermarket...
Canned bean shelves in Porterville, California
Photo by Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

In mid-February 2020, I traveled to Las Vegas to report on the Culinary Union’s organizing efforts during the 2020 Democratic primary. I’d been following the news about COVID since January, and I was growing increasingly concerned that the uncontrolled community spread and lockdowns that happened in China would happen here. I vividly remember this dissociated, eerie feeling that came over me looking around the ground floor of the Vegas casino I was staying in, seeing all of the people milling and gambling and having fun, and thinking, This is really dangerous. But also, This might all go away.

In early March, I went to my local Ralph’s and bought so many canned goods the cashiers looked at me funny, and I maybe lied about having a lot of roommates who hate to cook. I told myself they were for my earthquake kit; they’re still in the back of my cabinet, waiting for Los Angeles’s next disaster. I started offering elbow bumps instead of hugs; I spent a lot of that next weekend making pizza and playing video games in our house, which honestly now feels like a waste, like showing up for detention a day early.

None of these concerns made me safer, because no one was actually telling us what was going on. We hosted a friend from New York the week, it turns out, the virus began to spread uncontrollably in New York. I cringed my way through dinners personal and professional because I couldn’t tell if I was going crazy or the world was.

On March 13, I wrote about bean hoarding. On March 17, I wrote about what I feared leaving restaurants and their workers in free-fall would do to this country. I’ve still got a lot of beans. I’m still worried about the many, many people with no safety net who have been limping along with little to no government support. I don’t know what to make of the past year spent reporting through this crisis. I don’t know why I got scared a little bit before everyone else. I don’t know when this will be over, but I really hope it’s soon. —Meghan McCarron, Eater special correspondent

Los Angeles Tourism And Entertainment Industry Stifled By Coronavirus Restrictions
Hollywood Sign from Griffith Park
Photo by AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

On March 11, LA’s public health department advised pregnant people to avoid public places, including restaurants. That was a clear and immediate transition point for me. I remember the disappointment — it was pretty obvious that I’d need to cancel a bunch of things I was looking forward to as a pregnant person, including a baby shower that my mom had planned. But mostly I was scared. On a personal level, I had a full-blown panic attack that week when I was informed that I had been in close contact with someone who could possibly have had asymptomatic COVID. The fear came on a professional level, too: I owe my career to the time I spent working in restaurants, and it was immediately obvious just how devastating this particular crisis would be for the industry and its workers. Not five days after being told to stay home, I published a piece titled “Restaurants Are Fucked — Unless They Get a Bailout.” It depresses me now to think about how much of what happened to restaurants this past year was entirely predictable.

The same week that piece ran, I celebrated my first (but not my last, it turns out) birthday in quarantine with a socially distant walk through Griffith Park and so much food delivery. Toward the end of March, I went to the first of what turned into many prenatal appointments that my husband was not allowed to attend. It’s been over a year since shelter-in-place started for me, and I’m still sheltered in place now. I gave birth in this pandemic; I still haven’t eaten at a restaurant. —Hillary Dixler Canavan, Eater restaurant editor

Five select artisan bottles from Madre in Torrance lined up with sliced oranges and chapulines.
Mezcales from Madre!
Wonho Frank Lee

I was four hours into a seven-hour drive through the mountainous jungle roads between Oaxaca City and the coastal Mexican town of Huatulco when, as we crested over a peak, my phone suddenly regained service. “LA closes schools, effective immediately” was the news blip that flashed across my screen before we descended back into the darkness. Silence, fear, and disbelief dominated the next three hours till we reached the coast, as my brain swirled with the repercussions for my family of four, the restaurant industry I cover, and my city.

I was in Oaxaca on a weeklong research trip for what was to be a massive Eater travel guide to eating and drinking through the incredible Mexican state. And I cannot describe the discordant feeling of being in the midst of both a literal and culinary paradise while watching the world as you know it dissolve from a thousand miles away. My carmate and guide on the trip was LA restaurateur and Oaxaca ambassador Ivan Vasquez, and he, too, sat in the front seat contemplating how to navigate the closure of his restaurants, his staff, and his own family from afar. Would Trump close the borders? Would we ever get home? We all did, thankfully, and I spent many nights after coping with the stress of COVID by sipping from the eight bottles of mezcal that I smartly stashed in my suitcase. —Lesley Suter, Eater travel editor

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