After months of uncertainty, the world seemed almost normal again Monday inside Mama Louisa’s Italian Restaurant on South Craycroft Road.
As customers walked into the dining room, the restaurant's signature crooner music filled the air and owners Michael Elefante and his mother, Suzanne, greeted regulars with big smiles that peeked out from their protective face covers
“Welcome back, let’s eat!” was written in colored chalk above the sprawling mural of the Amalfi coast. The shining waters of the Italian seaside are much more noticeable now that there are fewer people in the restaurant, but there were a few lunchtime customers in the room sitting at one- and two-seat tables. Although they were all several feet apart, the vibe felt like everyone was actually eating together.
“When we were closing and just had to-go (orders), we just put on country music. I didn’t want it to feel like Mama Louisa’s because it wasn’t. It’s just not the same thing,” Michael Elefante said. “Today was finally a breath of fresh air, to put on Dean Martin and say, ‘All right, let’s get back to it.’”
The restaurant was one of dozens that opened for dine-in on Monday, the first day allowed under an executive order by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey.
The reopenings come nearly two months after Ducey ordered all non-essential businesses in the state to close, forcing restaurants to convert to take-out. His order is set to expire on Friday, May 15 although along with restaurants, retail businesses, bars and salons are also allowed to open now.
There was no music playing at Coyote Pause Café on the far southwest side, tucked into the retirement heavy Tucson Estates community, and business was far slower than Manager Deb Davis had anticipated.
But when she opened the doors a few minutes before the official 7:30 a.m. start time, the few customers waiting to get in "almost ran over me," Davis said through a mask; all employees have to wear face masks as do the customers.
"They're lonely. They are excited to be able to talk to somebody," Davis said of her mostly older clientele.
In the pre-coronavirus world, Coyote Pause Cafe would be hopping on a Monday this time of year with 50 or more diners. In March, the height of the restaurant's season when the bulk of the winter residents are still in town, they could serve as many as 100 people on a Monday, said General Manager Pam Cathey.
But the dining room is no longer set up for that kind of crowd. The restaurant has eliminated half of its seating by spacing tables on the closed patio that used to seat 40 and the main dining room that had capacity for 48. Each table has a brown lunch bag that customers can deposit their used napkins and other debris in before they leave.
Owner Kerstin Block, who also owns Buffalo Exchange and two small bed-and-breakfast lodges next to the cafe, said she can't operate the restaurant with so few tables for long. But she can do it for now.
When the 13-year-old restaurant, housed in what was a museum dedicated to John Wayne, converted to takeout, business initially was pretty brisk. Then it grew to be steady before slowing down in the last week or so as winter residents make their way back to homes in the Midwest and East Coast.
"We're a small business and we ... have kept a small amount of cash on hand so that if something happens we would be able to survive," she said just after noon Monday, as a lone diner sipped water and read a book in the Southwest-deco dining room. "I think we will survive."
At the 64-year-old Mama Louisa’s, opening back up was simply a question of when. Throughout the closure, the restaurant worked with a skeleton crew. Many of the furloughed staff members, meanwhile, were not able to get unemployment, which was added pressure for the Elefantes to open the doors.
Mama Louisa's iconic salad bar is gone and in its place, a timeline of the history of the restaurant is planned. But the all-you-can-eat pasta station is still going strong, since that’s manned by a server.
Customer Michael Lopez said he’d made two trips to the pasta station for lunch that day, once for the Boss sauce with sausage and shells, and another trip for their spicy green chile sauce.
“It makes you feel a little normal,” the local DJ said. “We’re never gonna be back to normal, but this is our new normal. We just gotta get used to it and have a good time.”
Across town at Marana's popular R&R Pizza Express on North Sandario Road, Justin Whittier was one of three diners eating inside the 23-year-old restaurant. Only four tables are open; six others are blocked off with chairs on top to allow for social distancing, said owner Linda Molitor.
"I think it's great to go out to eat," Whittier, who lives in Phoenix but is in Tucson pursuing an electrician job downtown, said as he waited for two slices of pepperoni pizza.
R&R easily transitioned to takeout when restaurants closed in March; Most of their business is carryout, said Molitor, who had to adjust her face mask as it slipped several times off her nose. And while the dinnertime business barely missed a beat — on some days business was downright booming, she said — the lunch business dropped at least 25 percent since the closure. And it was slow to pick up any on Monday. Although business was steady, it was not nearly as rushed as the restaurant usually experiences, Molitor said.
"I think people are still nervous to come in and they've gotten so used to not coming in," she said.
Over at Guillermo’s Double L, a staple of South Fourth Avenue for 72 years, a path of blue "Xs" taped in six-foot increments lined the lobby as a masked server whisked by carrying a plate of steaming fajitas, their smoke spewing out over the nearly empty dining room. With three separate large dining rooms, the restaurant at 1830 S. Fourth Ave. seems to have a natural advantage when it comes to social distancing. As of Monday, they had not removed any tables from the front dining room, although they had blocked off a few.
“We’re used to a bigger crowd coming in and out, it wasn’t as busy as I thought it would be,” said Candy Gonzalez, who took over the business with her husband Edgar last year. “It’s the first day, and I’m amazed that we’ve had the turnout that we’ve had. It’s not what we’re used to between the customers that are choosing to dine in, but we’re doing OK.”
“We’re just taking it one day at a time,” Gonzalez added. “Hopefully people will see that we’re keeping it clean and safe for them. Hopefully we’ll get more busy as the weeks go by.”