Outdoor dining has officially begun everywhere in the state — except New York City — and indoor service is confined to upstate for the moment. With temperatures expected to hover in the mid-70s this weekend, there will be no shortage of residents looking for al fresco eating and drinking options. The big question, of course, is how venues will accommodate the crowds, and what precautions everyone is taking.
For NYC restaurants, looking elsewhere in the state may point to what’s to come. In brief: Some restaurants are building massive tents, sometimes over valet parking lots. Others have secured nearby lots and transformed their ambitious offerings into more approachable fare. Local municipalities have been working to arrange street closures, particularly to assist establishments without access to patio dining. And at one Long Island venue, which opened right before the shutdown in April, the owner has managed to find a way to host drive-in movies while selling takeaway frozen cocktails to, um, drivers.
Following are a few snippets of what outdoor dining currently looks like throughout the state, gathered from first-hand observations, interviews, and local media.
People aren’t wearing masks at tables, including when not eating
In picturesque Oyster Bay, where the mustachioed U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt would spend his summers, restaurants were packed on Wednesday evening, the first night that Long Island restaurants were open for outdoor service. A general observation: Waiters wore face coverings, as required by law, while literally no one sitting down kept their masks on, despite state guidance that customers be encouraged to wear them when not eating or drinking.
At Taco Bay, a Tex-Mex spot that sells hard shell tacos, burritos, and soft pupusas, patrons donned face protection while waiting in line, then took them off at the garden tables. At Maria Lopez and Maria Novo’s Lourdes Mexican Grill nearby, a great bodega that serves classical Mexican fare, a handful of people hung around the backyard patio tables on Thursday without masks, sipping on Heinekens as the counter workers grilled (excellent) chorizo and adobada tacos. The same mask-free scenario was also evident at Wild Honey, a creative American spot, and Oyster Bay Brewing Co.
Fancy restaurants are getting more casual
Las Puertas in Buffalo made the transition from high-end eating to more approachable fare, the Buffalo News reports. The ambitious Mexican venue by Victor-Parra Gonzales, which normally serves a $95 tasting, switched to a la carte offerings when it moved outdoors, and updated its menu to reflect larger Filipino, Italian, Asian, and Middle Eastern influences. Gonzales was able to acquire a nearby lot to launch the al fresco service, which he divided into zones: one with stools for solo diners, another with bean bag chairs for lounging, and a third with tables spaced six feet apart.
At 2 Spring, normally Oyster Bay’s most upscale restaurant, chef Jesse Schenker continued to feature the same comfort food-leaning menu he’d been offering during the takeout-only days. Think: fried oyster po’ boys, lobster rolls, and baby back ribs, with all but one dish priced under $30. Patrons (without masks) filled the sidewalk seats on Wednesday, ordering ahead online (or at a takeout window), and adding on cocktails throughout the evening. The restaurant might have been able to accommodate more outdoor diners had it completed an atrium with a retractable roof, but the COVID-19 construction ban delayed that project by months.
Casual restaurants with outdoor seating are busy — and also finding new ways of expanding service, like setting up drive-in movie theaters
Though demand in Long Island may not be a perfect translation to restaurants in the city, many of the patios were packed during the first week of service. Across the state, those who had the capital to expand outdoor seating have been doing it. In Buffalo, Blackthorn restaurant was in a good position because it had purchased seven lots near the pub-style restaurant over the last two years. The acquisitions allowed it to set up a beer garden and space for outdoor entertainment. It cost the venue approximately $750,000, according to Buffalo News. And still: “We don’t even have enough tables to accommodate what we could handle,” co-owner Pat Lalley told the local paper. Tables are spaced ten-feet apart.
In Syosset, where Natalie Portman went to high school, acclaimed Greek spot Platia was still preparing for outdoor service as of Thursday. Owner Gregory Spanos is transforming the venue’s valet parking lot into an outdoor dining room, complete with a canvassed wedding-style tent for rainy weather. The space will open tonight, June 12, with its typical bill of fare, including grilled branzino, fried calamari (the ubiquitous avocado toast of Long Island), and gyros made from layers of fatty pork crisped on the rotisserie. Platia will accommodate approximately 10 to 15 tables outside, with eight feet of spacing between them.
And at Coach Meeting House in Oyster Bay, owner Rustan Lundstrum pulls off two improbable experiments. Firstly: The venue hosts old-school drive-in film nights — one of the only legal forms of moviegoing in New York right now — in its ample parking lot. Tonight’s showing is Space Jam. A minimum fee of $100 per car is applied toward “concessions” like beer, buffalo wings, raw clams, and steaks.
The second experiment, as Newsday reports, is a Dairy Barn-style drive-through setup for frozen cocktails. People queue up in their cars for pomegranate daiquiris, Jack Daniel’s peach tea frosé, Jameson coffee slushies, and “Fire Island Rocket Fuel.” Given that frozen drinks are, by their nature, meant to be consumed immediately, and given that people are picking them up in their Subarus, one might worry about folks sipping behind the wheel. Then again, to be fair, this is all very “Strong Island,” as people sometimes say.
Cities where restaurants don’t have outdoor space are working to close streets
Oyster Bay restaurants without ample patios or backyards appeared quite empty. To help restaurants without dedicated outdoor areas, the town is considering a plan to allow for road closures on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.
The Central New York city of Syracuse waived its outdoor permitting fees, but Syracuse.com reports that social distancing requirements, combined with local accessibility regulations, results in certain restaurants not being able to offer any al fresco seating at all. Accordingly, the town is exploring the possibility of closing certain streets and public areas.
Just the same, Ithaca Journal reports that that the namesake Southern Tier city, home to Cornell University, is even further along in this regard, with plans to shutter parts of “restaurant row” on Aurora and State streets to vehicular traffic. The pedestrian zone should debut sometime in the next week or so, and will begin as a 30-day trial, per the Journal.