When Monday arrived, and with it the official start of phase two, I was especially excited to eat out in restaurants again. I’d been doing carryout for months, but food eaten after a delay of minutes or hours is never quite the same. Also, I’d found myself uncomfortably perching on park benches, and eating while standing up in the street, and yearned to sit down to a restaurant meal again, even if it was outdoors.
Monday, I sat on my hands, since I could see as I rode around the Lower East Side, Little Italy, the East Village, Greenwich Village, and the West Village, that places were struggling to establish their street and sidewalk presence, circular saws whirring.
But by Tuesday, the outdoor dining configurations were at least partly stabilized. I could see that some places had been planning this eventuality for weeks, and had elaborate set-ups that made maximum use of space available, grabbing parking spaces like a 19th century robber baron and even installing sneeze guards between tables to allow closer spacing.
Other places had nonchalantly thrown a table or two, some which looked like they could have been salvaged from dumpsters, onto the sidewalk — as if, I suppose, they didn’t want to rehire waitstaff or rebuild their front-of-the-house operations quite yet. Maybe they simply wanted to see if this new mode of operation generated any real cash.
On a subsequent pair of evenings, I decided to visit examples of both approaches. I’ve cloaked the identity of the places, so as to permit observations that may be helpful, without sounding too critical. Many of these outdoor dining areas will doubtlessly be evolving, and won’t look the same next week.
The Casual Approach
Monday evening was anarchy, but by Tuesday evening certain areas had established themselves as hotspots of outdoor dining. One that surprised me was Nolita. Its restaurants had always been spaced out, with big gaps in between, allowing individual restaurants to grab a little more space in areas that felt secluded. The streets showed less traffic, which was another plus for those seated directly on the pavement.
The restaurant chosen hadn’t been open that long when the pandemic hit, and it had revived from a long sleep with a menu much shorter than before, dispensed from a window with no waiter service for the tables. Prior to the virus, the place hadn’t done sidewalk seating. A picket fence sequestered a few parking spaces along the street, and five tables had been set out — fewer than the space could safely hold. The tables were low, and smaller than cocktail tables; the stools were squat and backless, as if the restaurant didn’t really want customers to linger.
On top of that, the seating area was continually criss-crossed by delivery bikes, whose riders stood waiting for their bags of food. Some wore masks, some not as they passed by, which worried us a bit. My companion and I also felt as if we were competing with delivery orders for the attentions of the kitchen, and the delivery guys were winning. You can’t argue with that, though, since the deliverers were just trying to make a living.
I mentioned that the menu was shorter than it had been, consisting of perhaps one dish from each category common in Southeast Asian restaurants. One was an agreeable beef curry with skin on potatoes the size of a child’s marble. Another was a chicken salad with little fried nuggets instead of the usual shredded chicken, sided with a cucumber salad and a fiery dressing. Here we saw the drawback of eating from takeout containers: We couldn’t assemble the salad unless we’d also had a plate.
But once the sun sank, the weather was glorious, with a light breeze blowing from the west and moderating temps. In line with the place’s evident quest for simplicity and efficiency, the only cocktails available were bottled, with a single slushy.
We sat and shared the slushy as a garbage truck labored by, only a few feet away. Ah, this is the life, we thought, beginning to truly enjoy ourselves. It caused us to reminisce about dining experiences we’d had on market streets around the world, in Morocco, Buenos Aires, and the Philippines. This dining environment delivered some of the same attractions, while entirely lacking the comforts of the conventional restaurant.
The Highly Built-Out Approach
The nexus of East Village outdoor dining is Avenue A and 7th Street, right at the corner of Tompkins Square, with radiating establishments wildly throwing tables onto the street and the sidewalk. Nearly every table was taken on both Tuesday and Wednesday evenings throughout the area, with a great hubbub arising in the Alphabet City evening. What would the area look like when the weekend arrived?
Avenue C proved another hotspot, where, as with Nolita, the restaurants and bars tend to be more spaced out, and restaurateurs have taken over the sidewalks and streets with a Bohemian flair. Even before COVID-19, the area had a frontier-sy feel.
The restaurant we chose had taken great care with its outdoor area. A raised platform right next to the restaurant held a couple of tables; there were more on the sidewalk and in a pair of former parking spaces, now blocked off with a lattice fence that leaned a bit into the traffic. Potted fig trees had been set here and there, and a sidewalk box held a magnificent red hollyhock, which towered over everything, swaying slightly as traffic passed.
Two companions and I were seated in one of the parking spaces, and as we were settling ourselves with a bottle of cold rosé, a siren began to howl and a hook-and-ladder truck whizzed by only a couple of feet from our table. “This is so exciting!” One of my companions exclaimed, only partly referring to the fire engine.
Apart from a wine list of mainly Eastern European bottles, the bill of fare was similar to the one I remembered from my last visit. We feasted on a Turkish salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, and creamy feta barely dressed, perfect for our summer mood; and a wedge of spinach pie that tasted like a noodle casserole, which had been improved by being warmed slightly. This was like a restaurant meal in a seaside taverna. All that was missing was the sound of waves.
The french fries were stupendous, brown, warm, and wobbly, comically designated as pommes frites on the menu, perhaps in a tip of the hat to their Belgian origins. The table bread came with a spicy red pepper paste rather than butter, and we were nearly full already when the entrees began to arrive. We felt the timing of the dishes was pretty good, though the staff had already decided which patrons were there mainly to drink, and which ones wanted a timely meal, with the latter getting their food faster.
Given the circumstances, the service was spectacular, especially because it was punctuated with speeding cars and the occasional helicopter. It was perhaps a little weird that the servers needed to scrupulously keep their masks firmly in place, while the customers lowered theirs. We worried about their exposure to the virus due to close contact with dozens of diners per hour, and did our best to keep to recommended best practices. During most of our hour-long meal, every table was taken, with a few customers waiting patiently a respectful six feet from the nearest table.
As the sky got darker, clouds raced across the part of it that could be seen between tenements. Little twinkly lights came on above the fences, providing perfect illumination. And as we further gobbled a lamb stew and a dish of baked beans and grilled sausage, we decided that this experience was better than dining indoors — even with fire trucks racing by, bottle rockets exploding, faint smells of garbage wafting up, and all.
Did I feel safe dining in a restaurant again? I did indeed, especially since it was outside, where the danger of contracting the virus is supposedly less. Yes, I’d definitely do it again. But I’m not so sure how I’ll feel when dining moves indoors for phase three.