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COVID-19 is creating a catch-22 situation for local eateries and drinking establishments; safety precautions are necessary to get over this virus, but at the same time, many small businesses are not making it out alive.

When quarantine first began in March, Chef Zouhair Mardini stepped into a new role and completely reinvented the menu and atmosphere at Route 522 Taproom in Woodinville. He transformed the taproom into a first-class “going out” experience with a focus on food.

“This is my house and you are my guest,” he said. “Because we’re small, it’s not difficult for me to do quality and presentation and make people happy.”

Mardini personally shops at local markets every day to find the freshest produce and protein for his guests. Always the first to open and last to close, he spends every single day each week in the kitchen. He said nobody else is allowed to cook except him, ever, although he’s starting to allow more people in the kitchen as word spreads. 

“Nobody is to leave unsatisfied,” Mardini said. “It has to be top notch, otherwise it’s not going to be served.”

Mardini opened his first restaurant in downtown Snohomish fresh out of chef school in 1982. Since then, he has opened three more restaurants, one of which he built himself to seat 400 people. He said all of his restaurants were successful because of the food and the formula he uses, with an emphasis on time and quality. 

In the early 2010s, he started feeling exhausted all the time and semi-retired from the restaurant business to spend more time with his wife and two daughters. Mardini said he’d achieved everything he wanted to do and felt as if he'd conquered the restaurant industry.

Mardini said he shut down his prized Snohomish restaurant on New Year’s Eve in 2013 without warning to anyone, even his family. He waited until midnight for the year to end, walked the stage, unplugged the band and told everyone he was done. 

It wasn’t until later that Mardini learned he had a 14-pound tumor growing on the right side of his chest. He said the doctors didn’t think he was going to survive. After a 22-hour surgery, 24 pounds was removed from his body.

Two years went by until he started to feel like himself again, Mardini said. That's when an opportunity arose in Woodinville at Route 522 Taproom and he accepted. 

“I am the happiest I've ever been,” he said. “It’s not about the money. I love this. I’ve done it my whole life. There’s something special. It’s not just the restaurant, it’s the experience you will receive from us.”

Mardini said his goal is to put this restaurant on the map like his previous establishments. Route 522 Taproom is already becoming well-known for its portion sizes and guests always leave with leftovers, he added. 

Mardini’s unusual taproom features Mediterranean-style food and special meals every single day. He said this type of restaurant is in demand within the city of Woodinville. Guests can expect to see a menu loaded with exotic food, seafood, lamb and lots of beer and wine.

In compliance with Gov. Jay Inslee’s executive order Nov. 15, the taproom will remain open for takeout food and drinks. The order requires restaurants and bars to be closed for indoor service until Dec. 14.

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