In its hey day, diners lined up down the block, hours before opening, for a taste of the modern Filipino cooking at Bad Saint. But two and a half years after the pandemic first shut down its tiny dining room, the Columbia Heights restaurant quietly served its last meal on Saturday, July 9.
“The attitude that I think we and a lot of people had in the beginning [of the pandemic] was ‘We’ve just got to make it to the other side of this,'” says co-owner Genevieve Villamora. “At some point, probably in the last nine months, I was like, there’s no getting on the other side of this. This is it. This is the new reality.”
The intimate 24-seat dining room closed in March 2020 and never reopened, subsisting instead primarily on highly variable carryout orders and weather-reliant patio seating. Villamora notes that Bad Saint has one of the smallest dining rooms in the city, and part of its magic came from all the encounters and connections between strangers who cozied up next to each other in such tight quarters.
“I don’t know if people have that same level of comfort with people that they don’t know in a tiny, tiny space anymore,” Villamora says. “I know people are eating inside, but I just think that asking people to eat inside in a space as small as ours is a different request.”
Plus, Villamora says, she’s continued to be concerned for the health and safety of staff. She personally was bedridden and nearly hospitalized by a severe Covid infection in May of 2020. “That left a very big impression on me,” she says.
Instead of indoor dining, the restaurant tried out countless business models, from catering to neighborhood food drops to patio events. The constant grind of retooling and troubleshooting and reinventing was exhausting and also unpredictable.
“My instinct is just to be really stubborn and very determined and to hang on and not give up. But in this case, I think that we all have worked so hard throughout the pandemic, and there are just a lot of factors that decisively impact the work that we do that are out of our control,” Villamora says.
The restaurant was an instant hit when it opened in 2015 under the direction of chef Tom Cunanan. It became a local and national media darling, ranking No. 2 best new restaurant in America by Bon Appetit in 2016 and earning Cunanan a James Beard award for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic in 2019. Bad Saint was one of the restaurants that helped to make DC’s food scene “cool” on a national level—and that it no doubt popularized Filipino food across DC and the US.
Cunanan parted ways with the restaurant in 2020, and former sous chef Andres Gutierrez has been leading the kitchen since.
Villamora says she’s now focused on finding new jobs for her staff, but she’s not sure exactly what’s next for herself. Before restaurants, Villamora spent a decade working for a range of social justice nonprofits.
“My life has been really closely tied to the life of the restaurant for sometime. I’m going to need a little bit of time to just get used to the idea of being without it,” she says. “I think in that space that I’ll have a lot of ideas about what to do next.”
She’s also been working more on her mental health—something she hopes fellow restaurant industry folks will take time for as well.
“All of the pressure and anxiety of the restaurant trying to survive in this environment really ratcheted everything up a few notches for me,” Villamora says. “It was only a few months ago that I was honest with myself about how much I was struggling and how much I really needed help and finally got that for myself… It’s challenging but we have to find ways to take care of ourselves and take care of other people.”
This story has been updated with comment from Genevieve Villamora.