Days after NYC dropped its vaccine mandate for restaurants, buzzy Greenwich Village seafood spot Dame faced an alarming amount of blowback from a mob of anti-vaxxers that showed up at the restaurant this week. A tense night unfolded as a group of people protested the acclaimed restaurant’s decision to continue requiring that all customers show proof of vaccination. The restaurant’s owners allege that they roughed up Dame’s outdoor patio and squatted in the dining room, while loudly comparing the vaccine mandate to segregation in the South, claiming that it was discrimination and calling those who enforce the mandate “Nazis.”
The unexpected events started at 8 p.m. on March 8, when two men walked into the restaurant without a reservation, co-owner Patricia Howard tells Eater. They sat down at the restaurant’s counter, and started asking for drinks. Howard explained that Dame was fully booked and didn’t have space for walk-ins — and, even if they had a reservation, they needed to check in with the host first to show proof of vaccination — but the men didn’t budge and kept referencing that the city had lifted the mandate. “They were argumentative from the start,” Howard says.
As the tense interaction was taking place inside the restaurant, a crowd of about 20 people with anti-vaxx paraphernalia, apparently connected to the two men, started gathering outside. At first, Howard thought that they were passersby on the restaurant’s busy Greenwich Village block, but then she noticed that the yellow-and-black caution tape wrapped around Dame’s outdoor dining patio (which was not in use at the time) had been torn down and “people were trying to unfold our outdoor furniture even though it was locked up,” Howard says. As the crowd kept meddling with Dame’s structure, co-owner and chef Ed Szymanski called the police. After about 15 minutes, before the police showed up, the group, which was never served food or drinks, “got bored and left,” Howard says.
But that wasn’t the end of the harassment. The group returned around 10 p.m., just as Dame was seating its last group of customers for the night. This time, four or five men walked into the restaurant, according to Howard. A large, muscular customer, who had offered to help after hearing of the initial incident two hours earlier, tried to ask the group to leave but they ignored the repeated requests, Howard says. The unmasked men sat themselves at the restaurant’s communal table, chugged water, kept loudly referencing freedom and segregation, said that they had a lawyer present, and were filming everything. She and Szymanski called the police again.
“We support the right to protest peacefully outside,” Howard says. “But not in our tiny, 450-square-foot restaurant while guests are trying to enjoy the reservation they’ve waited weeks for.”
Thirty minutes later, several police officers arrived, but “they still couldn’t get them to leave until more units arrived for backup,” Howard says. Meanwhile, the men had started shouting at Dame employees and customers in the dining room. Howard estimates that the men were in the restaurant for about an hour until the police were able to get them to leave. Howard and Szymanski did not press charges as the restaurant did not sustain damages. “They knew how to skirt the line without doing anything illegal,” Howard says. “It’s very hard to feel so wronged and not be able to defend ourselves.” The person identifying themselves as a lawyer with the anti-vaxxers, however, threatened to file a complaint against the restaurant.
The officers asked if one of Dame’s employees, who was verbally harassed by the group, wanted to file a report, but they declined, Howard says.
A neighbor who watched the whole incident brought the team pizza afterwards, Howard says, and friends from Carbone — Major Food Group’s hip red sauce spot located two blocks away — sent over their bouncer to stand guard the rest of the night. While the restaurant didn’t sustain physical damages, Howard says, the team is hiring a bouncer, at $35 per hour, to work at the restaurant for the rest of the week.
“I feel a little embarrassed [talking about this], as I know that there are much bigger issues in the world right now,” Howard says. “But our staff was very affected, and our top priority is to protect them.”
NYC restaurants and bars — including Dame — previously experienced a deluge of harassment last summer from anti-vaxxers when they voluntarily decided to require proof of vaccination. Angry commenters targeted the businesses with negative online reviews and Instagram comments. Eventually, in August, the city installed a blanket vaccine mandate for restaurants.
The friction surrounding vaccine requirements has bubbled up again now that the citywide mandate has been rolled back. NYC mayor Eric Adams announced last week that restaurants were no longer required to ask for proof of vaccination for indoor dining starting on March 7. Adams heralded the move as another step on the city’s road to recovery amid the ongoing pandemic, but noted that businesses could keep a private vaccine mandate in place if desired. Some restaurants — including Dame, Malaysian cafe Kopitiam, and stylish Tribeca spot Mena — have chosen to keep requiring proof of vaccination from customers as a measure of safety for their staff.
Despite last night’s incident, Dame will continue requiring proof of vaccination for customers. But Howard says it’s not financially sustainable for the restaurant to keep paying a bouncer so that it can keep safely enforcing its vaccination requirement — and she’s also bracing for the possibility of another targeted attack. “This is not an issue that is going to go away,” Howard says.
Update: March 9, 2022, 3:10 p.m.: This post has been updated to reflect the cost for Dame to hire a bouncer. It will be $35 per hour, not $30 per hour.