When restaurants and bars on eastern Long Island were allowed to return to outdoor dining and indoor dining at half capacity on June 24, restaurant owners feared they wouldn’t be able to make ends meet.
Many had already been doing takeout and delivery for months — a novelty for top restaurants in this area — and a summer that would rely largely on outdoor dining due to safety concerns seemed unfathomable to most. Yet more than two months into the return to indoor dining and the experiment with outdoor dining, some of the area’s restaurants appear to be thriving.
“In July, we actually did 800 more covers than the year before,” says Stephan Bogardus, the chef at the waterfront restaurant Halyard on the North Fork. This hotel restaurant — which typically relies on weddings and large catered events to drive sales in the summer — was hard hit by the pandemic.
Halyard initially began selling off all its food and essentially operated as a grocery store until it closed in April. The restaurant reopened after Memorial Day, and at first, June was slow. But by July, business began to pick up as more customers started coming out, and some New Yorkers who had decamped to eastern Long Island felt it was safe to venture out again.
Many places like the Halyard are seeing success with outdoor dining, even if it’s not quite at the level of regular sales. Parking lots have been converted to dining gardens and the town of Southampton went so far as to close its Main Street on Saturday nights to allow tables on the street. (After the debacle of the Chainsmokers concert, the town pulled the plug on that practice for two weeks, but word is the street will close again this weekend.)
Zach Erdem, the owner of Southampton restaurants 75 Main, Blue Mar, and Sushi by Bou, has been going all out on the outdoor-dining front recently, renting extra tables and 150 chairs for 75 Main to make the most of the new space. While business saw historic lows in April and May, he says all three of his restaurants are packed again.
The need for additional space has fostered innovation for restaurateurs like David Loewenberg — an owner of well-regarded spots like the Beacon and Bell and Anchor in Sag Harbor and Fresno in East Hampton — who has morphed the parking lot at Fresno into a beer garden. Though for Loewenberg, it’s not quite the same as it was pre-pandemic.
“We are all trying to be creative and doing our best to get through this year so we will be here next,’’ he says.
Though Montauk was not as receptive to closing down traffic as Southampton was, individual businesses have been thriving with expanded outdoor dining. Jon Krasner, who owns that town’s legendary Shagwong restaurant, has transformed its patio into a buzzy social scene with guests rinsing down oysters and fresh fish tacos with rosé and local beer. “This is our Montauk version of Parisian outdoor dining,’’ he says.
The popular Gurney’s resort has increased its outdoor seating at its Star Island restaurant Showfish, and converted its beloved Thursday-night lobster buffet to a lower-key seated situation.
The switch to outdoor dining has been a harder proposition for restaurants not located in ideal spots in the Hamptons. Eric Miller — the acclaimed chef who opened Silver Lining Diner last summer and drew crowds for his rotisserie chicken, local fluke, and homemade pies — erected tents and set up picnic tables outside, but has seen a dramatic dip in business. “We didn’t have outdoor dining before and we are right on the highway, so people are reluctant to come.”
But outdoor dining isn’t all that’s keeping local restaurants afloat right now. Restaurants that previously only relied on a tiny fraction of sales from takeout are now experiencing some major gains in that area. James Malios, owner of hopping Mediterranean spot Calissa, in Water Mill, says that area of business took off immediately and is now doing five times as well as when it launched. He also made the most of the two acres his restaurant sits on by expanding its outdoor seating.
Bustling Bridgehampton Greek restaurant Elaia had a spike in takeout sales largely due to the New Yorkers who have decamped to the Hamptons over the summer, reports owner Sofia Crokos. “Before, we would have a dozen to-go orders in a week; now we have hundreds,” says Crokos, who created an additional revenue stream by opening a retail area selling Hellenic favorites like olive oil and honey.
And while takeout and outdoor dining are proving to be more reliable for local restaurateurs, the same can’t be said for the return to indoor dining. “We sent a survey out to our top customers to see how they felt about our reopening,’’ says Crokos. “We got mixed feedback, so we decided to focus on takeout and outdoor dining, but keep indoors closed except for private dinners up to 12.’’
“Indoors is the new Siberia,’’ adds Maurizio Marfoglia, who owns Dopo La Spiaggia in East Hampton and Sag Harbor, as well as the new Argento in Southampton. He says customers get offended if you offer them a seat inside. Miller of Silver Lining Diner has shut down the indoor dining portion of his restaurant entirely, and East Hampton’s Millhouse Inn is eschewing its spacious garden and communal dining room altogether to deliver meals directly to guests’ suites.
“It seems that people are willing to pay to get privacy, comfort, and very little contact,” says Sylvia Mueller, the owner of the Inn.
Restaurateurs are settling into this new normal and hoping that at least some aspects of it — particularly outdoor dining — will be here for good.
“This the first time restaurants without cafes are allowed to have outdoor dining in East Hampton,’’ says Steve Haweeli, whose company, Wordhampton, represents nearly a dozen restaurants in the area. “People love it and it’s the one aspect of this situation that we hope will stay with us.”
And despite business not being as rosy as it would be in a typical year, some restaurateurs — buoyed by the popularity of outdoor dining — have forged ahead with new ventures. The team behind East Hampton’s Highway Restaurant & Bar just unveiled a new spot in Amagansett called Main Street Tavern, Naia opened in Southampton’s Capri Hotel, and an outpost of high-end omakase restaurant Kissaki premiered in Water Mill.
“We got lucky because we got a spot with a whole courtyard to ourselves,’’ says Kissaki owner Garry Kanfer, who found the location in June, and expanded its outdoor space. “Expansion during COVID has been stressful, don’t get me wrong, but bringing Kissaki to the Hamptons was the best decision I made this year.”