Pearl at Longshore in Westport reopens for indoor dining

WESTPORT — One day before the state decided to close businesses because of the spread of COVID-19, Pearl at Longshore had already made its own decision to shut its doors.

“It’s so much safer to err on the side of caution than to put anybody in jeopardy,” Lois Backon, co-owner of Pearl at Longshore, said Wednesday as she kept an eye on the tables of customers who were celebrating the reopening of Connecticut with an indoor meal.

On Wedneday, phase two of the state’s reopening allowed indoor dining with conditions — tables more than six feet apart, wait staff in masks and masks required for customers unless they were eating or drinking, more sanitizer available, deep cleaning when a table cleared.

And she thought back on mid-March.

It was a hard decision to make. Pearl planned to unveil its new seasonal menu along with its new executive chef in the spring.

“This past winter, we worked really hard to strategize how we could become a year-round destination for Westport residents as well as visitors to the community,” Backon said.

The restaurant had hired a top chef, created a new menu and redecorated.

But when the news of the virus’ impact in the state began to spread, the restaurant preemptively decided to close.

“Until we really understood what was going on, the best thing for our staff, guests and everyone around us was to hit the brakes,” David Donnelly, director of operations at Pearl, said. “We shut down for a couple days then we resumed curb-side only for a couple of months.”

As Pearl transitioned from curbside service to outdoor dining and now indoor dining, Donnelly said menus were created to accommodate customers now sheltering in their homes.

“It certainly halted our normal Spring trajectory,” Donnelly said of the changes. “Normally, March starts off then by May, we’re hitting into our peak season for several months.”

Despite being at a fraction of the restaurant’s normal seating capacity, he said the business has persevered in large part thanks to the help of the Westport community.

“Even though it’s been a tough few months, it has given us a little bit of an opportunity to reconnect with our local community,” Donnelly said.

The inside of the restaurant has been structured to accommodate customers. From windows removed to provide an outdoor dining space to arrows to maintain one-way foot traffic, Backon said staff works to ensure social distancing. The safe climate has also provided an atmosphere to reassure customers, she said.

“If you come, you feel very, very comfortable,” Backon said. “We’ve seen in the last couple of weeks people have gotten a little more comfortable to come with friends and not just their family.”

With the state mandating restaurants at 50 percent capacity, Donnelly said deliberate spacing between booths, chairs and tables also helps.

“Everything is deliberately spread out so you can come out, but you’re never going to feel that you’re close,” he said. “We want to make sure first and foremost that people that are coming out feel comfortable.”

As the state continues to slowly reopen, Pearl has also nearly brought back all its staff initially laid off because of the closure.

“We were proud that we were really helping with the unemployment,” Backon said. “We were bringing people back to work and satisfying the community’s needs for great food and great service.”

She said the community has continued to support the business through an ever-changing environment.

“If there’s a message to send, it’s thank you Westport,” she said. “Thank you for helping us through this time.”