COVID clouds anniversary of CookHouse restaurant

This time a year ago many in the neighborhood were counting the days: When would CookHouse, the new Bolton Hill restaurant, finally open?

In September 2017 the Karzai family, which for a long time operated  b Bistro at 1501 Bolton Street, put this message on Facebook: “B is temporarily closed while we reorganize to develop a new concept for our valued guests.” That re-opening never happened and the neighborhood for a while was, for the first time in more than a decade, without a full-service dinner restaurant.

When George and Jessica Dailey, neighborhood residents with deep experience in the restaurant business, stepped forward in 2018 to buy the building and refurbish the closed bistro, Bolton Hill breathed a sigh of relief.  The Daileys promised a neighborly setting that would offer a breakfast, lunch and dinner menu different from that of On the Hill Café, which they also own, but would transform into an upscale eatery with a full bar.  Over two years of on-and-off construction they invested heavily  to remodel, build a new kitchen and set up a flashy new bar.

CookHouse opened with a sold-out house full of neighborhood diners on Feb. 15, 2019.  Dinner included fresh seafood and steaks, duck and New American-cum-continental cuisine, with original cocktails and a curated wine list.  It closed just a month later as COVID-19  blanketed the nation.  They had hired a chef, two managers and more than a dozen other employees.  Now they are all gone.

“What an experience this has been,” George Dailey said.  He was able to re-open for indoor and outdoor service from May – August.  Outdoor tables usually sold out while the intimate, close-to-your-neighbor indoor setting gave way to widely spaced tables that were not filled.  “People were nervous about coming inside,” he said, “and just serving out of doors was unsustainable.  So, in August we closed down, again.”

Since November, CookHouse has operated from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. for carryout service only, a menu of original sandwiches and light lunch fare, including empanadas that are a glance back to Venezuela, where English-born George Dailey grew up.  When the weather warms up and city regulators allow, he hopes to reopen outdoors.  “We’re not looking to re-open indoor dining any time soon,” he said.  “I don’t want to be doing this forever, though.  I am anxious to get back to where we were.  The first day we don’t have to be fearful of COVID is the day I will open up fully again.”

Government loans and neighbors coming to buy lunch are helping to keep CookHouse afloat in the interim, with three apartment leases upstairs helping to cover the expenses.

On the Hill Café at 1431 John Street is closed but Dailey hopes to re-open it when MICA resumes in-person classes, since students were a key clientele.  The Park Café at 132 McMechen St., a coffee and sandwich shop also popular with students, is closed with no hint of re-opening.  The Tilted Row Bar and Café at 305 McMechen Street opened a few weeks before CookHouse, closed for a while and now is serving weekend carryout dinners and drinks to go.  Noona’s Pizza Place on Mt. Royal Avenue is open for pickup and delivery for just a few hours Wednesday through Saturdays.  The Brass Tap beer bar next door is open most days for online orders of craft beer, bar food and brunch and whiskey specials to go.

It’s hard to recall The Before Times, when we could choose between them all for a beer and a burger, a drink and a small pizza, a veggie sandwich with soup or a fine dining experience, all within walking distance.  Maybe someday soon….

Bill Hamilton