An eerily quiet Deep Ellum street on a Friday night (March 20, 2020). Trace Miller

Coronavirus

Deep Ellum Was One of the Busiest Neighborhoods in Dallas. Until It Wasn’t.

Crowds at previously busy music venues and bustling bars are gone, but business owners are holding out hope.

Last Friday night, Deep Ellum was still. A couple plays the siren from dystopian horror series The Purge on a loudspeaker. A homeless veteran, shivering in the cold, asks for spare change and a cigarette. Two bearded men from The Well Creative Productions fly a drone over Main Street, filming the eerie quiescence for a project. A rock band rehearses behind the shuttered garage door of Three Links on Elm Street. But nobody is bouncing between bars. Nobody’s eating at restaurants. They can’t. Since the city of Dallas shut down all theaters, bars, and dining rooms until April 29 to curb the spread of coronavirus, Deep Ellum appears dead.

Easy Slider is empty, the vacant chairs stacked on the unoccupied tables. “Friday night and Saturday night are obviously our big money nights. The streets are usually crazy,” says Glory, Easy Slider’s bar manager. “There’s fights in the streets and just everyone freaking out… Our bar is pretty much full all night long.”

Cliff Edgar, the owner of Brick and Bones, a bar and fried chicken joint on Elm Street, says that Friday was their best day. Now, traffic resembles a slow Tuesday.

“Any day after this [pandemic] crisis, it’s been the same,” Edgar says (“the same” here being the eradication of dine-in traffic, slow walk-ins, erratic takeout orders, and drastic reductions in revenue). “We’ve turned [into], what I’d like to say, a deli, you know, like a bodega. You come in, it’s just pick up to-go food,” he adds. “Our operations have completely changed. And there’s a lot to that. There’s a lot to rearranging the operations.” Part of that adjustment is shaving down to a skeleton crew, laying off almost all hourly staff.

Anselmo Manzanares, the owner and manager of Mamma Mia’s Pizza and Pasta down the street, describes how traffic and revenue have dropped noticeably, even exponentially. In response, he’s starting to expand to online platforms like DoorDash to attract more customers while relying on regulars to keep him solvent.

“I’ve been operating with a skeleton crew and just playing it by ear,” Manzanares says. “It’s like we opened the business again. That’s what it feels like. I’m getting the word out that we’re open and letting people know we’re here.”

And yet, the proprietors and managers of Deep Ellum restaurants have basically no locals to whom they can reach out.

Nori Handroll Bar’s general manager Brer Wyant says there are “residences around but it’s not the same as it was five years ago where you had more people living in Deep Ellum in different lofts.” Wyant lived here a handful of years ago, when it was very much a neighborhood. Now, he says, it’s much more commercialized, mostly filled with weekend traffic.

But Wyant points out that zero locals doesn’t necessarily equal zero business. Nori Handroll Bar, which primarily deals in dine-in and has many regular customers, began offering takeout and delivery last week (like much of the rest of Dallas’ restaurants). Customers responded in a manner that Wyant describes as “uplifting.”

“It really has been a great response. Most of our guests are regulars. There were a couple who just said, ‘Oh, we’ve been a couple times, but we thought we’d support someone in the local restaurant business and come in,’” he says. “So, we have people who are coming in specifically from all different parts of Dallas, not necessarily just in the Deep Ellum or downtown area, people really coming to help and support us.”

This isn’t the case for all Deep Ellum restaurants. “We’ve just got a lot of family and friends that come to support us and so I think that’s what’s been keeping us afloat right now,” Glory says, back at Easy Slider. Manzanares, at Mamma Mia’s, gloomily describes how business is about as slow as when he opened the restaurant around 10 years ago, when this neighborhood was still recovering in the years following the Recession. Nevertheless, Wyant still thinks Deep Ellum restaurants have it better than the smaller, neighborhood establishments. He worries about those places.

“Hopefully the neighbors who actually go to that [local restaurant] are going to keep those businesses running,” he says. “Hopefully the people in the neighborhoods focus on those restaurants.”

Of course, he also advises to come get sushi on a weekend soon, too.

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