José Andrés received plenty of praise when he announced in August that his DC-area full-service restaurants—including Jaleo, Zaytinya, and Oyamel, among others—would require proof of vaccination for indoor diners over the age of 12. But in recent weeks, blogger Barred in DC noted that the celebrity chef’s ThinkFoodGroup quietly changed the language of its policy from “requiring” proof of vaccination to simply “requesting” it.
ThinkFoodGroup now confirms to Washingtonian that they are not verifying vaccination documentation. “They ask all guests to adhere to the policy, but will not be checking every guest who walks into the restaurant,” a spokesperson says. ThinkFoodGroup declined to say whether the restaurants would do random spot checks of vaccination records, and would not answer any questions about exactly when the policy changed or why. They also declined to make a representative from the company available for an interview. Previously, the restaurants asked diners for a physical Covid-19 vaccine card, a photo of it, a government-provided digital record, or Health Pass by CLEAR. All employees are still required to be vaccinated.
“It was discouraging—just one of many discouraging things that have occurred over the last couple years—that people were paying lip service to what I thought was an important policy, particularly because of José Andrés’s reputation as a humanitarian,” says Sam Gugino, a retired food and wine writer who currently lives in Philadelphia.
When Gugino and his wife visited DC at the beginning October, they specifically sought out restaurants requiring proof of vaccination and even eliminated potential destinations that allowed medical exemptions. They settled on Zaytinya and China Chilcano. As the hostess prepared to usher them to their table at the Mediterranean restaurant, Gugino asked if she was going to ask for their vaccination cards.
“She said, ‘No, we trust you,'” Gugino says. “It’s just a joke. ‘We trust you’—what does that mean?”
The next night at China Chilcano, again no one asked for proof of vaccination. Again, Gugino asked about it. “‘We just have people check it off when they make a reservation,'” he recalls one of employees telling him. “I knew there was no such thing when I made the reservation.”
Gugino asked why not check at the door? The employee, who Gugino says was standing next to three other employees at the host stand, told him they didn’t have the staff. He found the argument hollow given his experience having his documentation checked quickly and efficiently at Philadelphia restaurants with a single host.
Afterward, Gugino sent an email to both restaurants. He never received a response.
Gugino is one of a handful of recent diners who expressed frustration about the lack of enforcement to Washingtonian. Federal contractor and software engineer Marie, who asked to use only her first name out of privacy concerns, has been less dogmatic about her dining choices. She says she’s generally comfortable eating indoors knowing DC already has a fairly high vaccination rate compared to other parts of the country. But she was still “annoyed and disappointed” when she attended a dinner at Zaytinya in early October with her boss and colleagues and no one checked for proof of vaccination.
“It’s hard enough these days getting your expectations set appropriately for dining out (or really doing anything). Everywhere has different rules, and I tend to spend a lot of time researching protocols so I don’t have any surprises,” she wrote in a message to Washingtonian. “I have a TON of respect for ThinkFoodGroup overall, but seeing them not follow their own policies disappoints me and makes me trust them less.”