When Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Wednesday that indoor dining in New York City would be postponed indefinitely, there was relief that the city was averting a second wave of coronavirus cases despite the hit to long-suffering businesses. Some intrepid restaurateurs, however, have already found creative ways to stretch the limits of the city’s outdoor dining program, and in some cases have returned to a pre-pandemic level of business.
“We’re ready for phase three, but for us it really doesn’t matter, inside or outside,” says Christian Krasteff, general manager at Dudley’s in the Lower East Side.
The Australian all-day cafe is one of those rare restaurants that has as many seats outdoors as it would normally have indoors, thanks to Open Restaurants, the city’s outdoor dining program. Since June 22, more than 6,800 restaurants have been certified, through an application that’s instantly approved online, to provide seating on sidewalks, city streets closed to vehicular traffic, backyards, rooftops, and other outdoor spaces. There are no limits to how many of those categories a restaurant can take advantage of, so long as baseline social distancing rules are enforced.
In the case of Dudley’s, the restaurant’s takeover of a neighboring deli space and art gallery over the past decade, and its existing sidewalk cafe license, has afforded it several layers of outdoor seating, spread out across 23 socially-distanced tables along three storefronts worth of space.
Dudley’s has since rehired its entire staff, and is processing more than a hundred applications for new employees. Any additional seating that would come with a return to indoor dining will make the restaurant bigger than it was before COVID-19. “The smartest move is for phase three to not happen, but we’re in a good position if it does,” says Krasteff.
Just across the Williamsburg Bridge, Felipe Mendez-Candelas had been working for over a decade to get a sidewalk cafe license for his Mexican restaurant La Superior. Each time, he was denied, an experience familiar to many restaurateurs around the city. “I’ve tried to get the outdoor dining [permit] maybe five times in the last 13 years,” Mendez-Candelas says. “Never got it approved. Maybe this is it.”
Given the opportunity with the Open Restaurants program, Mendez-Candelas moved every chair and table at La Superior outside onto Berry Street, which is also closed to vehicular traffic. The restaurant is now operating at 100 percent capacity. Several blocks away, at La Superior’s sister restaurant Cerveceria Havemayer, every form of outdoor dining is utilized: the patio, the space directly next to the walls of the building, the outside perimeter of the sidewalk, and the roadway, all of which is permissible under the outdoor dining guidelines.
Other restaurants are even borrowing frontage from their neighbors to add seats. In SoHo, Cipriani’s Downtown outpost has tables stretching all the way south to Broome Street, along the walls of an unoccupied retail store. Just a few blocks away, Israeli cafe 12 Chairs has over 70 chairs — up from the 50 they normally have indoors — spread out across three storefronts: The restaurant, the adjacent space that was used for catering and private events pre-pandemic, and with permission from a next-door neighbor, more seats in front of their apartment building as well.
“It’s amazing, it’s a block party,” says 12 Chairs manager Manuel Cicle. “I would like the indoor dining to come, but if it doesn’t, we’re doing good with the outdoor seating!”
According to the Mayor’s office, restaurants are technically limited to providing seating within their own boundaries, but Mayor Bill de Blasio previously suggested that enforcement would be hands-off. “We’re in a crisis. We need to get our economy back,” said de Blasio at a June 22 press conference. “We’re trusting the restaurant owners to self-certify, we’re trusting the people of the city to do the right thing to keep each other safe.”
Though the sight of oversized outdoor dining areas may be jarring in a city that was completely shuttered just three weeks ago, operators like Cicle say that they’re playing by the rules. “We’re taking all the precautions,” he says. “We have six feet of separation, everyone is wearing gloves, everyone is wearing masks. We have single use menus. We give customers hand sanitizer. If we don’t take the precautions, we’ll go back to where we were.”
“We don’t want an outbreak again,” adds Cicle.
While outdoor dining is considered less of a risk for contracting COVID-19 than eating indoors, it still involves people eating and drinking with their masks off, and can sometimes lead to large, raucous gatherings. Just down the street from 12 Chairs, Greek restaurant Lola Taverna utilizes several types of outdoor seating to create a buzzy corner reminiscent of Trastevere in Rome, where crowds of tourists congregate on the street, drinking cocktails into the night.
“It’s a crowd mentality,” says Emmett Burke, owner of Emmett’s Pizza on Macdougal Street, between 12 Chairs and Lola Taverna. “If people see that these places are a scene, more people are going to show up. Restaurants are turning into nightclubs because the people who go to nightclubs don’t have that anymore. So you see Lamborghinis rolling up to some of these places.”
Governor Cuomo cited misbehavior at outdoor dining settings as one of the rationales for delaying the return of indoor dining during phase three of reopening. And while it’s a setback for struggling restaurants that planned to have indoor dining start Monday, the alternative may be worse. Many restaurants that did reopen for indoor dining in other states had to shut down again because employees tested positive for the virus. To support larger outdoor dining setups, the city announced on Thursday that it would shut down 22 more streets to traffic.
“We feel that if the third phase will be delayed, it’s okay.” says Monia Solighetto, co-owner of Have and Meyer in Williamsburg, which has 38 outdoor seats, compared to the 40 it normally has inside. “Going too fast, and maybe a new lockdown will happen. It would be much harder to be back on our feet.”