Pandemic Watch: The New Rules of Outdoor Dining
By Evelyn Renold
Alfresco dining is one of the few pleasures left to Manhattanites who find themselves tethered to the city in this long, hot pandemic summer. Indoor dining was supposed to resume in Phase 4 of the reopening, but Governor Andrew Cuomo (wisely) elected to defer that.
So local restaurants have spilled out onto sidewalks and streets, in instant new spaces created with little more than plywood, trellises and canvas coverings. (In some places, Plexiglass dividers separate the tables.) Owners are already talking about installing space heaters when the weather turns cooler, to prolong the outdoor experience. Even with these efforts—and with expanded takeout and delivery service--restaurants are obviously hurting. At one crowded West Side eatery the other day, the maitre d’ explained that the outdoor tables represent a mere 25% of the indoor seating capacity. No word yet on when indoor dining might resume, but when it does, some form of social distancing is sure to be required…taking another bite out of restaurant profits.
Not surprisingly, many local restaurants have packed it in for good, and more will surely follow. Among the high-profile casualties to date: The Oxbow Tavern, Lucky Strike, Aureole, the Gotham Bar & Grill, and deli stalwart Fine & Shapiro (though another deli, Pastrami Queen, is expected to open soon in the same space). One popular café, rumored to be on life support, is back in business: Le Pain Quotidien on West 65th has reopened under new ownership, as have several LPQ cafes on the East Side. And the popular LPQ outpost in Central Park is set to reemerge in the next couple of weeks.
Understandably, menus tend to be limited at many makeshift outdoor spots. Excessive heat can be a problem on some days. Only a few eateries take reservations—mostly, it’s first-come, first served. More seriously, an outdoor patron at Pappardelle on Columbus Ave. was punched in the face the other night by an apparently deranged passerby.
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been on the front lines (so to speak), sampling the fare and watching the passing scene at a number of these newly tricked-up outdoor eateries. Four of us turned up for dinner at Café Luxembourg one Saturday night; this restaurant no longer takes reservations, and it took about 20 minutes to be seated. No matter; we enjoyed the French bistro fare and the friendly, attentive service. Luxembourg is on a side street (West 70th, off of Amsterdam), which is a plus.
Restaurants located on busy thoroughfares are at a clear disadvantage. A recent, otherwise tasty lunch at Nice Matin, was marred by a steady stream of noisy trucks barreling along Amsterdam Ave. (Meanwhile, the restaurant’s next-door neighbor, The Lucerne Hotel, was recently designated a homeless shelter.) The Greek restaurant Avra, on East 60th off of Madison, benefits from an unusually large, outdoor footprint as well as terrific food. The three-course lunch special for $29.50 is almost a bargain considering how immense each course is.
Back on the West Side, Elea (West 85th between Broadway and Amsterdam) also serves up refined Greek fare in very pleasant surroundings. Alice’s Tea Cup recently reopened both its East and Upper West Side chapters. In addition to high tea, Alice offers various sandwiches and salads; it’s also possible to stop by for a scone (many varieties) and a mug of iced tea. (A woman strolling by the other day allowed her dog to poop on a small patch of dirt right next to our table. She did clean it up, but still…) Way west, on the Pier that extends past Riverside Park and West 70th Street, is the Pier i Café. You order food from the takeout hut (hamburgers are a good choice), then eat at one of several tables, with cheery green canopies, overlooking the Hudson. You won’t mistake this setting for the Côte d’Azur, but it has its own pleasures.
Evelyn Renold is a longtime editor with a special interest in arts and entertainment. Her wide-ranging career has included stints at Newsday, The New York Daily News, Lear’s and Good Housekeeping. She currently reviews literary fiction for Kirkus and works with authors at evelynrenold.com