The past year has hit the restaurant industry harder than can be calculated; it will likely take months or even years to fully assess the damage wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Thousands of restaurants have permanently closed across the state due to a lack of governmental aid, and thousands more closures have yet to be counted; xenophobia and anti-Asian violence continue to take a toll on the small businesses of Manhattan’s Chinatown; restaurants in Midtown and Hell’s Kitchen are reeling from record-low tourism numbers; and regardless of when things return to “normal,” a mounting crisis of unpaid and deferred rent awaits restaurateurs on the other side.
Through the challenges, there were also welcome changes that sprung up across the five boroughs. Outdoor dining has become a permanent fixture and takeout cocktails are well on their way, too; the pandemic has ushered in a new age of accountability in the hospitality industry, with workers speaking up about injustices. The city’s food critics have set aside their stars and ratings for now; a new generation of pop-up restaurants and online food businesses has emerged — many available with a few swipes and clicks on Instagram.
It shouldn’t have taken a once-in-a-generation pandemic for any of these changes to occur; here are some of the ways the industry has been transformed the most over the past year.
Outdoor dining works in NYC and should be here to stay
Walk around most neighborhoods in the city right now, and it would be hard not to find a restaurant that has some tables and chairs set up along the sidewalk. Maybe there are some heaters out, depending on the weather, and maybe there’s some sort of covering to protect diners from the elements. And that’s typically just the bare minimum. The pandemic has pushed restaurants to experiment with outdoor dining in all sorts of ways — mostly to diners’ advantage — though some setups, particularly during the winter months, have raised questions about whether they should be called outdoor dining at all.
Still, New Yorkers can’t discount the beauty and vibrancy these outdoor dining setups have brought to our streets. Yes, outdoor dining existed prior to the pandemic, but it was limited to sidewalk seating, and a much smaller — often pricier — group of restaurants had access to it. Now restaurants have expanded into parking spots, and in many cases taken over streets that have been closed to vehicular traffic. The previously months-long, expensive licensing process for outdoor dining has been replaced by a relatively simple and instantaneous online application. Outdoor dining wasn’t some magical, fix-it solution to the devastation the restaurant industry has experienced since the start of the pandemic, but many restaurant owners say that it has been instrumental in giving them a fighting chance.
And the best part: It’s here to stay, meaning NYC now joins many European cities where roadside dining is part of the social fabric. The city will have to figure out the logistics of permitting, and when and how long streets will be closed once the emergency restrictions are lifted, but it’s still a major boost for New Yorkers and restaurants. Last year, more than 10,000 restaurants citywide were approved to serve outdoors. That number is likely to increase this year.
— Tanay Warerkar
The success of to-go cocktails proved New York doesn’t need outdated liquor laws
If there was a bright spot early on during the pandemic, it was the rallying around the temporary legalization of to-go cocktails. Finally, the city could have its own sort of Bourbon Street moment, even if restaurants and bars couldn’t serve their guests indoors. Some caveats existed, however: Open-container laws still applied (whether they were strictly enforced is another matter) and restaurants had to sell food to be eligible. Still, it seemed like a reprieve, especially when nobody knew that the U.S. would still be in the throes of a pandemic a year later.
As the pandemic continued, government officials and businesses realized the to-go route was a life preserver for many. The outdated liquor laws in the state needed to go away.
One of the common refrains from business owners throughout the past 12 months has been their criticisms over how government officials often left them in a lurch with slow and unpredictable policy changes. When is indoor dining returning? What constitutes an outdoor dining structure? Why don’t restaurant workers get priority for vaccinations? But the advent of to-go cocktails — and subsequent calls to make them permanent — happened quickly. It prompts the question: Why can’t more changes happen so quickly? After all, the temporary relaxation of liquor laws helped spawn a slew of innovations: cocktails served in flasks, bars opening takeout windows, growlers filled to the brim for large-batch servings — and some of the city’s top bars even jumped into the canned-cocktail trend.
— Bao Ong
Restaurants are facing a rent crisis and need a long-term solution
Restaurants citywide had already begun to notice a drop in sales in early March 2020, as fears of the spread of COVID-19 meant more people were increasingly staying home. It was significantly worse for restaurants in NYC’s Chinatowns, which had already seen losses the month prior due to xenophobia and the spread of misinformation about the virus. What many restaurants could never have predicted was how much worse it was going to get, especially in terms of restaurants’ ability to cover fixed costs like rent.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo instituted a commercial eviction moratorium at the start of the pandemic, meaning businesses like restaurants couldn’t be booted out of their spaces for not paying rent. Cuomo has continually extended that moratorium throughout the pandemic, and while that might have provided some type of temporary reprieve for restaurant owners, it has in no way addressed a mounting crisis: unpaid rent.
The most recent rent survey by the NYC Hospitality Alliance revealed that 92 percent of the 400 restaurants surveyed in December 2020 couldn’t pay full rent that month. That’s a 12 percent increase from the 80 percent that couldn’t pay full rent in June last year. Many restaurant owners have worked out agreements with their landlords and are either paying a percentage of their existing rent or paying based on the money they bring in each month. That’s not the case for most restaurants — many will face bills worth tens of thousands of dollars once the emergency order lifts, and if no additional federal aid comes through.
Congress passed the Biden administration’s stimulus package, which will definitely be a huge boost to restaurants, but it likely won’t cover all of the rent bills restaurants have accrued this past year. There is proposed legislation in New York that could cancel a bulk of back rent for restaurants, but it’s not yet clear when that will pass, and industry experts have warned that deferred rent could cause many more restaurants to shutter in the coming months.
— Tanay Warerkar
Minority- and women-owned restaurants were among those hardest hit by the pandemic
For all the uncertainty over how many restaurants have closed during the pandemic, one thing is clear: Women- and minority-owned restaurants have been among those most affected, in part because they had been set up to fail. Federal aid arrived with the Paycheck Protection Program in April 2020, but Black- and Latinx-owned businesses struggled to get the funding they needed. (A year later, the story is the same.) By May 2020, the number of African-American business owners in the United States had already declined by 41 percent from the same time the year before, according to the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. The number of Latinx business owners declined by a third over the same time period.
Those numbers would be troubling anywhere, but are especially so for a city like New York, whose food culture is sustained by the work of immigrant and minority chefs and restaurateurs across the five boroughs. Four months into the pandemic, a survey of more than 500 minority- and women-owned businesses in New York City found that 85 percent of respondents expected to permanently close by the end of the year. It’s not clear how many of those restaurants ended up closing — and it could take months or even years to find out — but the treatment of these business owners over the last year is a grave foreshadowing for when that data finally arrives.
— Luke Fortney
Historic neighborhoods like Chinatown can survive when New Yorkers rally behind them
The threat of COVID-19 is not over yet, but as more people become vaccinated and NYC creeps back to a semblance of its former self, diners are seeking out what they once took for granted. Exhibit A: Manhattan’s Chinatown, which was hit particularly hard before the pandemic fully gripped the city. Some of the neighborhood’s most iconic establishments permanently closed. (Hop Shing, a dim sum favorite, and Lung Moon Bakery, which was especially popular for its mooncakes, are just two.) While all restaurants shut down indoor dining on March 16, Chinatown restaurants, bakeries, and markets had already started seeing a drop in business months beforehand because of xenophobic characterizations of COVID as a “Chinese flu.” Chinatown started coming back by end of summer 2020, thanks to a mix of takeout and delivery (thank you, WeChat), outdoor dining, and support from nonprofits like Welcome to Chinatown.
Still, challenges beyond the threat of the Coronavirus arose for Chinatown and its residents, as well as Asian and Asian-American New Yorkers. By the end of winter, as the vaccination rate increased, cases of anti-Asian hate crimes were on the rise and Chinatown was once again in the spotlight. Business owners started worrying about their employees amid both a mass shooting in Georgia that garnered nationwide attention and multiple incidents closer to home. Several citywide protests have been organized in the past few months, restaurateurs have banded together to help out, and new fundraising initiatives keep popping up. But these Chinatown businesses keep showing their resilience — serving the public its beloved bowls of noodle soups, barbecued meats, and regional specialties — amid continuing racist attacks and a pandemic that’s ongoing.
— Bao Ong
Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio’s constant bickering cost New Yorkers unnecessarily
In the face of an unimaginable rise in cases and a horrifying death toll as NYC became the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio appeared to act as a bulwark against the ongoing crisis. In fact, Cuomo seemed to soothe the nation so much that he ended up winning an Emmy for his COVID-19 press briefings.
But it’s all been pretty much downhill since those early days. Cuomo and de Blasio’s long-standing rift reappeared soon thereafter, playing out at their press briefings with differences on what restrictions to place on schools, other pandemic-related restrictions, and even the use of differing health metrics to make decisions, all as hundreds of New Yorkers continued to die and thousands more were getting sick. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a candidate to replace de Blasio, perhaps summarized it best in a tweet back in April 2020: “I don’t have patience for petty back-and-forths in the middle of a deadly pandemic. Cut the crap.”
Cuomo’s and de Blasio’s constant disagreements and bickering affected the restaurant industry as well, perhaps nowhere more plainly than in the confusing sets of guidelines from city and state agencies that restaurants have had to keep up with during the pandemic. Restaurant owners have complained time and again about receiving conflicting guidelines from city and state agencies, and the problem persists even today. Most recently there was more confusion over a botched rollout of vaccinations for restaurant staffers, and de Blasio and Cuomo continue to disagree over indoor dining guidelines as well.
De Blasio is into the final year of his term and will be leaving office soon. Cuomo has been accused of sexual harassment by multiple women, and his administration is wrapped up in a scandal about misreporting deaths at nursing homes in the state during the pandemic. Perhaps the city won’t have to deal with this bickering too much longer.
— Tanay Warerkar
Food criticism nixes stars (for now) — and highlights a more diverse group of restaurants in the process
For all that’s been lost this past year, there’s one thing at least some were glad to see go: starred ratings of New York City restaurants. When New York Times critic Pete Wells began reviewing restaurants following a six-month hiatus, he did so without the publication’s four-star rating system. The Infatuation, a New York-based review website that also owns Zagat, announced the permanent end of its numeric rating system in June, writing that it couldn’t “imagine going into a restaurant and giving out a 7.1 or a 6.7 or an 8.2 any time soon.” Neither food critic at Eater New York has issued a star rating since the indoor-dining shutdown in mid-March 2020, yet restaurant reviews continue to be written.
More than a year into the coronavirus pandemic, it’s apparent something about criticism has changed: not just the ratings, but also the selection of restaurants that appear in them. “Most of the places that have played significant parts in the pandemic lives of New Yorkers ... are virtually unknown in Los Angeles and London,” Wells wrote in a recent review of Park Slope cafe Winner. In place of Michelin-star recipients and nationally renowned restaurants, critics are making room for businesses that are sometimes left out of the fold: The pop-ups, pivots, socially distant parties, Instagram bakeries, and takeout and delivery businesses that have come to define pandemic dining.
He's not giving stars for now, but @pete_wells is reviewing restaurants again. This week, he finds Burmese cooking with "a blend of fidelity and freedom that seems new to the city." https://t.co/bRCtSsDiPy— NYT Food (@nytfood) September 21, 2020
The scope of criticism has likewise expanded to address indoor dining guidelines and state policy. “I decided I didn’t want to write straightforward reviews at all,” Times critic Tejal Rao said on an Eater panel in February. “So I did more, like, weird essays and policy reporting and just a mixture of pieces.” The reviews that have come out of the pandemic — a combination of bike tours, family meals, and meandering ledes about giant pandas — are often, in fact, “weird.” But they are also strangely familiar. Reading one is reminiscent of running into a teacher at the grocery store as a child, the sort of, “You order takeout, too?” moments that help readers see themselves in the reviews they are reading. Hopefully, even once stars return.
— Luke Fortney
The pandemic made it clear a growing veganism movement is here to stay
Vegan restaurants were already gaining momentum in New York City, but the pandemic brought renewed urgency to appeals for meatless dining. By Eater’s count, at least 20 vegan and vegetarian restaurants have opened their doors since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, an outsized number after a year of incalculable loss.
For some food businesses, the decision was informed by cost. East Village wine bar Ruffian was able to lower its prices by approximately 20 percent after removing meat from its menu, a move it had been “flirting with” before the pandemic but decided to execute last May, according to partner Patrick Cournot. Others, like restaurateur Alicia Guevara, cited the meat industry’s adverse effects on the climate as a factor behind opening. “The climate is screaming at us to change,” she told Eater contributor Emma Orlow shortly after opening Guevara’s in Clinton Hill last September.
Whatever their reasons, New York City has these restaurateurs to thank for its growing selection of excellent vegan options — which, despite the New York Post’s chagrin, aren’t going anywhere. Their menus include Chinese-American fare, Cuban-style tortas, Italian meatball subs, bodega sandwiches, and French pastries, along with vegan dishes that have been at the heart of international communities for centuries. Many of the chefs behind these dishes are not vegan themselves, but that doesn’t seem to matter much — neither are many of their customers.
— Luke Fortney
Expensive restaurants can also do takeout
Before the pandemic, there was only one way to get a bite of the luxurious fish served at Sushi Noz on the Upper East Side: Get a reservation. Once inside, customers had to shell out more than $300 for chef Nozomu Abe’s omakase, or pay a couple hundred dollars for a slightly less-expensive nigiri menu. It was a stunning experience for a select few who could afford it.
Now, it’s a different landscape. In a bid to attract neighborhood residents looking for weeknight dinners during the pandemic, Sushi Noz launched delivery and takeout options and opened a daily seafood market next door to the high-end sushi restaurant. Maki and handrolls are available for $8 to $22. Boxes of sashimi start at $30. Scallops, salmon, shrimp, and crab are available by the pound to take home. The restaurant has reopened for limited-capacity indoor dining, but customers now have a far wider range of options when it comes to eating at Sushi Noz. The company is in the process of negotiating a longer-term deal with the market’s landlord to make the new business permanent.
Certainly, it was an act of survival for the city’s most expensive restaurants to shift away from dine-in only, which was banned for much of the pandemic. But customers benefitted from being able to access high-end meals in a range of ways. Three-Michelin-starred restaurant Eleven Madison Park now offers upscale takeout. Exclusive red sauce joint Carbone joined Caviar, alongside famed, formerly cash-only Brooklyn steakhouse Peter Luger. Not all high-end joints are sticking with their takeout ventures — Momofuku Ko has already reverted back to dining on premises only, among others — but fingers crossed that what started as a temporary scramble to reach customers yields a more careful consideration of the potential opportunities that come with dinner served in multiple, more accessible formats.
— Erika Adams
Instagram ushered in a new era for unemployed chefs
Cooped up in their apartments, many out-of-work restaurant staffers were passing time early on in the pandemic by baking bread, cooking stews, and churning ice cream for neighbors, friends, and passersby who looked like they might need a bag of pastries. As the jobless days turned into months, an idea began to catch on: Why not sell the food on Instagram?
The grassroots effort quickly took off, and New Yorkers benefitted from a wealth of diverse and inventive food options, including Kimberly Camara and Kevin Borja’s Filipino doughnut startup Kora, and Lauren Tran’s Vietnamese-French pastry business Bánh by Lauren (which is slated to return to NYC in May). High-profile critics including Hannah Goldfield at the New Yorker and Pete Wells at the New York Times have spotlighted exciting options to be found on Instagram, including Eric Huang’s fried chicken delivery business Pecking House, and Joy Cho’s gem cakes.
While the ideas were born out of NYC’s restaurant shutdown amid the pandemic, they are now helping to keep customers engaged and revitalize the industry. Some are keeping their pop-ups going intermittently while heading back to staff jobs, while others are leaving their former kitchen jobs for good. Huang now hopes to launch a permanent storefront for Pecking House, he tells Eater New York, while Kora’s Camara and Borja paused operations late last year in order to expand operations into a commissary kitchen in Long Island City.
— Erika Adams
The voices of hospitality industry workers are louder than ever
NYC may have lost more restaurants over the past year than perhaps at any other time in recent memory, with tens of thousands of hospitality workers became unemployed. But that doesn’t mean the ones still working are remaining silent behind their masks.
Something changed during the past year. Chefs, servers, bartenders, sommeliers, and restaurant owners spoke up. They no longer had to toe the line that the customer is always right — in fear of potentially ruffling the feathers of the person ordering a coffee, canned cocktail, or roast chicken from them. The reasons may have varied, but what is clear is that hospitality workers finally felt like they could — and at times, must — speak up. As Black Lives Matter came to the forefront after the death of George Floyd in police custody, countless workers took to the streets (and social media) to protest, and businesses helped fundraise to fight racial inequities. Ex-employees spoke up about kitchens where they were allegedly mistreated. When a wave of anti-Asian hate crimes crested this winter, restaurateurs banded together to help some of the city’s most vulnerable population. “We’re still in a pandemic and that alone is something so many of us are struggling with in many ways,” says Lijing Wei, a private events caterer who hasn’t worked in nearly a year and recently joined a protest in Manhattan’s Chinatown. “But when you add on what’s been happening, the hate crimes, you feel helpless and that the only choice you have left is to speak up and hope someone listens.”
— Bao Ong
Putting limits on third-party delivery companies is possible — and needed
Third-party delivery services have long been the source of headaches for many NYC restaurateurs. But it took a public health crisis for the city’s legislators to jump into action, pushing bills across Mayor Bill de Blasio’s desk at lightning speed. In May, two months after the initial citywide shutdown, the City Council passed emergency legislation that included a regulatory cap on delivery fees: Grubhub, DoorDash, and their competitors couldn’t charge restaurants more than 20 percent commission on any delivery orders during the pandemic. The temporary measure was extended in August to last until 90 days after NYC restaurants went back to full-capacity indoor dining.
The cap has offered a measure of relief to NYC restaurants, although it’s not a sweeping win. The apps continued to cause plenty of trouble for restaurants, including false charges for phone calls that didn’t result in orders, dropped orders and lost revenue when DoorDash merged with Caviar last summer, and “non-partnered restaurant signups,” where owners have found their shops listed on the services whether or not they actually want to offer delivery through those platforms. However, similar to the delivery-fee cap legislation, a bill was recently introduced in the state that would further ban delivery services from questionable activities, including signing up restaurants to offer delivery without their consent. Here’s hoping that local legislators will be able to add a measure of permanence to some of these temporary emergency bills.
— Erika Adams
Ghost kitchens may be popular, but they can’t replace restaurants
Ghost kitchens — one or more operators selling different cuisines from the same kitchen without a dine-in option — were popping up in NYC even before the pandemic. In fact, the New York City Council was examining the impact of these tech-industry-funded, delivery-only restaurants in January 2020 as companies like Cloud Kitchens and Zuul began to establish a bigger footprint in NYC. The pandemic has only exacerbated this trend, with some restaurants being forced to consolidate kitchens as sales dropped dramatically in the face of mounting costs like rent and utility. Ghost kitchens certainly help reduce the startup capital required to open a restaurant and the overall cost of running one, and their growing popularity is perhaps best indicated by big names like Franklin Becker and Guy Fieri getting behind the model.
Yet ghost kitchens will never replace restaurants. Many such operations have failed in the past pre-pandemic, including David Chang’s delivery-only platform Maple. Rachel Sugar perfectly encapsulates this: “To eat a meal in a restaurant — even a bad meal, even at a fast-casual bowl chain — is to participate in an immersive experience. Things are happening.” Ghost kitchens have also relied on the formulaic — they predominantly serve comfort foods like fried chicken sandwiches, pizza, or hummus and pita. Here’s hoping it’s the pop-ups that proliferate, not the ghost kitchens.
— Tanay Warerkar