Sitting in an intimate restaurant with your sweetie, enjoying food and wine while a local singer-songwriter strums a guitar and enfolds the room in warm, soothing tones. Almost seems like a normal Friday night, doesn’t it?
Almost, but not quite. When they weren’t eating and drinking at their tables, diners donned face masks Friday at Say Ciao!, a small taproom and eatery on Columbia Way in Vancouver. The evening marked the tentative return of live music to Clark County after a quiet year of COVID-19 shutdowns.
The ticketed event, featuring local folk-rocker Aram Arslanian, cost $30 in advance — plus a cash bar — and was limited to a maximum of 20 diners, one-quarter of the restaurant’s capacity.
In fact, just 15 bought tickets and came for Friday dinner. That was just fine with owner and chef Peter Gallin, who said extra small and extra safe is the best way to start reviving indoor dining and live music.
“The whole concept involves staying socially distanced when not seated,” he said. “The tables are 6 feet apart and diners go to the buffet to serve themselves.”
Gallin said he chose to offer a buffet instead of a plated meal to keep labor costs down after a year of plunging revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was incredibly dead for a long time,” Gallin said.
Now, he wants to make sure customers are comfortable coming back and dining in. That means attention to safety and fine food while still providing the same kind of relaxing, friendly entertainment that drew people to the restaurant before the world shut down, Gallin said.
“I’m very proud of my food — I’m a classically trained chef — but music has always been an integral part of Say Ciao!” said Gallin. “I’m a child of the ’60s and ’70s. Music is an important part of life.”
Now that things are starting to reopen, Gallin said, he’s already firmed up a weekly schedule of small, safety-minded, Friday night entertainment events through the end of March.
Musicians are only being paid with audience tips so far, but Gallin said he’s looking forward to guaranteeing them a set fee within a few weeks — once the music series is reliably up and running. Arslanian said he was “ecstatic” to play at Say Ciao! again. He used to be a regular performer there. “Friday night was the first time I’ve played a two-hour set in a long time. I saw a lot of familiar faces and included a lot of my own stuff,” Arslanian said.
He had such a good time that he blew right past the two-hour mark, he added. Gallin had to remind him to wrap it up.
When the pandemic blocked Arslanian’s busy gigging schedule, he jumped directly online with regular Monday night video streams. That was a nice outlet, he said, but performing for a camera can never approach performing for real people.
“Even having just a dozen people clap, seeing them exchange glances, like, ‘I know that song’ — all that feedback was missing,” he said. “It’s been rough.”
Because he is a professional musician who runs a small recording studio, which was also put out of business for months, Arslanian said he was able to qualify for unemployment insurance.
He said he didn’t mind playing a two-hour show at Say Ciao! for no fee, tips only. But that would only be true for a small handful of choice venues in Clark County, he added.
“I knew I would do well because it was Peter, who is a friend,” he said. “Peter is running a very small local business. I know what it’s like to run a very small local business. We need to have each other’s backs.”
While Gallin said he hasn’t gotten any pushback about the tips-only gigs, The Columbian received a complaint from local booking agent Jessicca Garcia, who works with Battle Ground rocker Amber Sweeney.
“It does not make me happy to hear about any restaurant/bar asking musicians to play for tips only,” Garcia wrote in an email. “Too often when budgets are re-evaluated … paying for music is on the chopping block, not having music. Live music is still being undervalued. A good musician will create a moment so special, customers won’t want to leave your restaurant.
“My hope is to advocate for the working-class musician,” Garcia wrote. “The ones who are running a small business, and trying to pay their living and business expenses, like every other business owner in this tough time.”
Other Vancouver venues that used to feature live music, from downtown’s Brickhouse to the east side’s TJ’s Cascade Bar and Grill to the waterfront’s Maryhill Winery Tasting Room & Bistro, are also open with limited indoor seating, but their websites still show wait-and-see messages about the return of live music.