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Things Are Looking Up For Boston Tavern Cornwall's

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A loosening of pandemic restrictions and federal aid on the way is lifting hopes of restaurants around the nation. The pandemic has forced more than 100,000 places out of business, but those still standing are hopeful - among them, Cornwall's tavern in Boston. We've been following them for the past year. And NPR's Tovia Smith has more.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: After a long, brutal winter, Cornwall's is finally getting what it's been waiting for - or at least a taste of it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Could I grab one of these tables outside?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

SMITH: When Boston restaurants could first start putting tables back out on the sidewalks this week, it was a stretch of sunny days in the 60s.

KAILEY SLAVIK: It's just a treat to just, like, catch some warm weather and have a beer outside.

SMITH: Harvard medical student Kailey Slavik was almost giddy to be eating out again.

SLAVIK: Like, I'm just having the best beer of my life at this, like, cute little patio.

SMITH: Just like the spring light outside, the vibe here is different now. You hear more chatter about who got a vaccine than whose mother or brother is sick. There's excitement that nearby Fenway Park will soon reopen to fans, even if it's only 5,000 per game. And neighboring Boston University is planning a scaled-back but in-person graduation.

BILLY MORAN: That's a good deal. That's a win for us.

SMITH: Billy Moran and his brother JR have been running Cornwall's with their aunt and uncle, Pam and John Beale, who own the place. After a year of shutdowns and COVID rules that left the business barely hanging on, Cornwall's is slowly returning to life.

PAM BEALE: Just energy, you know, that people come in and - I mean, you can just feel it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Bye, Penny (ph).

P BEALE: Bye, Penny. Thank you.

PENNY: No, thank you.

P BEALE: Energy, like I said - it's a little bit of encouragement.

SMITH: Pam's also encouraged by the billions of dollars in federal relief for restaurants, including grants for places like Cornwall's to hire more staff, pay vendors and maybe even themselves.

P BEALE: You feel like the government is now sort of starting to build a bridge to the other side for you. It's not like you're standing over an abyss and trying to figure out, do you jump? Do you not jump? There's a bridge, and that's a big relief.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Pam, all the best. And, yeah, I'm so happy that Cornwall's is...

P BEALE: Aw, thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: ...Holding ground and still serving all of us.

SMITH: Some 3,400 Massachusetts restaurants have not made it through, including many here in Kenmore Square. Chris Strang, a Cornwall's regular, lives across the street.

CHRIS STRANG: You know, we lost everything in this neighborhood - Island Creek, The Hawthorne, Eastern Standard, Pho, the Vietnamese place, Uno's. Like, literally everything we had is gone for good except for Cornwall's. You're left with a barren neighborhood.

P BEALE: We've suffered through a long, difficult time, but finally, you feel like things are coming together.

ALEX PROVOST: Right. Absolutely. That is true.

SMITH: Alex Provost manages the massive development project next door to Cornwall's with more than 100,000 square feet of new space to lease. The company, Related Beal, is betting on the long term, and its willingness to cut Cornwall's some slack on rent in the short term is what's enabling the restaurant to stay open.

P BEALE: We're all in this together, yep.

PROVOST: We're in this together, absolutely.

SMITH: But just as hope is mounting, another curveball comes out of nowhere. JR, who's been running the kitchen, ends up in the emergency room with stomach pain he thought was just stress.

P BEALE: So everybody was like, oh, what is it? What is it, you know? And he said, cancer. And we said, no, come on. Seriously, what is it? And he said, no, it's really bad news.

SMITH: It's an unfathomable challenge atop unfathomable challenge for the family and for the business. Cornwall's has been running on a skeleton crew of the four family members and just a few paid staff. As JR begins treatment, Pam and John take on more, staying till midnight a few times a week to close the place and getting up at dawn to open. A part-timer in the kitchen is now doing 50 hours a week, and more hires are in the works. But it's scary, Pam says, given how unpredictable business still is.

P BEALE: It really is hard to know. And you don't want to go too fast and then lose people because they're not making any money or because there's not enough business. So it's hard to navigate.

SMITH: Take St. Patrick's Day last week, when Cornwall's is usually packed from lunchtime to closing. This year, by mid-afternoon, hardly anyone showed up besides Strang.

STRANG: You could forget it's St. Patrick's Day if you're sitting here.

SMITH: Around happy hour, though, things start to pick up.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Yay. Cheers. Happy St. Paddy's Day.

(CHEERING)

SMITH: And by evening, every table is full.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Singing) What would you do with a drunken sailor? What would you do with a drunken sailor?

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: It would turn out to be their busiest night of the whole pandemic and a sweet victory coming exactly a year since they were shut down.

P BEALE: It's a milestone. You know, it's another corner that we've rounded. And you're just so happy you hobbled it together and survived.

SMITH: Of course, it's still nothing like normal. Massachusetts' strict curfew has been lifted, but social distancing still means they can only fit half the tables they used to. Cornwall's was actually turning people away that night. The stakes are too high now, Pam says, to cut corners.

P BEALE: I worry when you hear about outbreaks. And, you know, it's important that people remember how hard we fought to get here. So don't throw caution to the wind, your masks to the wind because we're going to regret it, you know? It would be crushing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ICE CLINKING)

MORAN: Good to see you, buddy. Take good care of yourself.

SMITH: On a good day, with the extra tables outside, sales are still hovering below half what they used to be. But Pam and John are clinging to hope.

P BEALE: You sort of feel like if you've been lucky enough to hang on, even if it's by your fingernails, there's going to be something to celebrate at the end.

JOHN BEALE: It just makes you want to come to work and see what happens when the door opens. Like I told you before, it keeps you alive.

SMITH: Maybe it'll be like the Roaring '20s that followed the 1918 pandemic, Pam says. But with COVID cases still high in Massachusetts and elsewhere, she's not celebrating yet. She says she's taking her cue from Dr. Fauci, who's warning people to not spike the ball on the 5-yard line.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.