Before the pandemic, restaurants with outdoor seating were the exception in New York City. Sidewalk permits were prohibitively expensive, harsh winters were impractical, and muggy summers uncomfortable. But the social distancing rules that closed restaurant dining rooms across the country last year to curb the spread of Covid-19 had a devastating impact on the US restaurant and food service industry, which reported $120bn in lost revenue in the first three months of the pandemic alone (the running total is now $280bn).
Outdoor dining emerged as a vital lifeline. To salvage the industry, the New York City government attempted to make it easier for restaurants to seat diners safely outdoors. Mayor Bill de Blasio launched the Open Restaurants initiative in June 2020, which legally permitted roadside dining and simplified the application process. Since then, more than 12,000 restaurants in New York City have been certified for outdoor dining.
Outdoor seating across New York City ranges from a handful of tables in an open-air shed to fully enclosed rooms, vestibules, bubbles and greenhouses. Some are on sidewalks while others are directly on the street, precariously sharing the road with cars and delivery trucks. They might serve a fine-dining tasting menu or a simple sandwich from the corner deli.
But outdoor dining also came with huge challenges for staff. One chef at an upscale Manhattan restaurant (who wanted to remain anonymous) told the Guardian that last winter was almost unworkable. “We had to keep all the doors and windows open in the kitchen to maintain ventilation, but then for a few months our heating went out so it was around five degrees in the kitchen, the chefs’ fingers were all going blue, oils were solidifying – the restaurant offered everyone Uniqlo quilted jackets but they would burst in the heat and so white feathers were constantly flying around the kitchen.”
Things were even worse for the wait staff, who were struggling with fewer customers and fewer tips, but had to remain standing outside without coats to attend to outdoor diners’ needs. “Their hands would go purple, they would come into the kitchen and put them on the plate warmer just to try and get the circulation going again.”
Now, facing a second pandemic winter and the threat of Omicron, a more transmissible variant that is going to make diners think twice about eating indoors, operators are busy winterizing their restaurants. The difference this year, however, is that indoor dining is available, as are vaccines, possibly alleviating the demand for outdoor seating. In light of this, restaurateurs across the city are asking one question: if we build it, will people come?
Investing in comfort
Flushing Avenue in New York City is a nearly five-mile stretch of asphalt that cuts through north Brooklyn and Queens. In certain areas, it’s also a gusty wind tunnel. This wasn’t a big consideration for Cressida Greening when she signed a lease for her restaurant, Winona’s, more than two years ago. But by December 2020, when indoor dining was banned for the second time in New York and as winter was setting in, the strong winds outside Winona’s proved to be significant. “It made things really difficult. There was only so much the heaters could do,” says Greening.
In a city that averages highs of less than 4C through January, keeping guests warm is an important consideration for outdoor dining. It’s also the most expensive. Effectively heating outdoor spaces requires a significant amount of electricity, which most restaurants are not equipped to handle.
Louis Smeby is the director of operations at Vestry, a fine-dining restaurant in the Dominick Hotel in SoHo, and he recounts spending close to $20,000 to upgrade the restaurant’s electrical panel and wiring last year. “Every outlet needed to be dedicated so that nothing pops when temperatures get really low,” he says.
Last year, de Blasio’s government allowed restaurants to use propane heaters, a cheaper and more efficient outdoor heating solution, but the city recently returned to pre-pandemic regulations, which ban the use of propane due to the potential fire hazard.
At Harlem Shake, a burger restaurant with locations in Harlem and Brooklyn, owner Jelena Pasic has been toggling between heating options.“We first used propane heaters, which didn’t work due to the fumes. Then we used gas heaters, which were not allowed under a roof. Now we are using electric heaters, which are safer but weaker and demand more electrical supply,” she says.
While restaurant owners across the city were making calls to their electricians, Yudai Kanayama had something else in mind. Kanayama is an owner of Dr Clark, a Hokkaido-style tabletop barbecue restaurant in Chinatown. Last year, he had the idea to build Japanese kotatsu tables outdoors. The table is common in traditional Japanese homes, with a built-in electric heater and a blanket that sits over diner’s legs to trap body warmth. “It’s amazing how warm kotatsu can be with much less electricity,” Kanayama says. The restaurant nearly doubled its capacity with outdoor dining, and while Kanayama spent money to import futon blankets and specialty kotatsu electric heaters from Japan, he didn’t need to make a huge investment in upgrading its electric panel.
Beyond heaters, operators are finding other ways to keep guests cozy. At Vestry, sheepskin throws are draped over the furniture for insulation, and customized blankets are available for every guest (these are laundered twice a week, and are not reused before a cleaning). German Rizzo is the chef and owner of three Italian restaurants across the city – L’Artista, Vite Vinosteria, and Palado – where he outfits his tables with blankets and initially offered hats – but guests had habit of running off with them so Rizzo opted for an inexpensive blanket from IKEA instead.
But while restaurants continue to pour funds into cold-proofing their outdoor eating areas, it remains unclear whether a fully enclosed outdoor structure is capable of preventing the transmission of Covid-19. In a report released by the Aspen Institute’s Food & Safety program earlier this year, Dr Sam Dooley Jr, the report’s primary author and a former CDC epidemiologist, writes that converting open-air outdoor sheds into enclosed rooms for multiple parties offers “no advantage over indoor dining” and requires the same preventative measures.
“A lot of people flouted those rules last year and we felt patrons weren’t comfortable with that,” says Greening.
Embracing the experience
After an isolating year of social distancing, some restaurants found success turning outdoor dining into a destination-worthy experience last winter, which they plan to recreate this year.
Industry Kitchen in the South Street Seaport has a 100-seat capacity, but when indoor dining shut down in December 2020, management invested in 11 greenhouses (like little clear-walled cottages) that could seat a party of four on the restaurant’s patio overlooking the East River. “This year, the general manager Aylon Hadar says, the restaurant is gearing up for another big winter season. They’ve added a large format cheese fondue and s’mores to the menu. “People are posting on social media so it’s part of the experience,” he says. “In the evening, when everyone sits down inside those huts and suddenly snow is falling…it’s amazing.”
A little further uptown, at Osamil in Manhattan’s Koreatown, Jason Yim, the general manager, was inspired by the pojangmacha style of outdoor dining and drinking in South Korea. These sidewalk stalls are scattered around Seoul, loosely enclosed by flaps of plastic, and even in the wintertime, charcoal grills and body warmth (and a little alcohol) keep the stalls from getting too cold.
Some restaurant kitchens are leaning into winter with customized, outdoor-only menus to enhance the experience. Chefs and co-owners Jess Shadbolt and Clare de Boer recently opened a “weekend window” at their restaurant King in the West Village. The walk-up counter sells hot plates of raclette, cake by the slice and hot cocoa exclusively for outdoor diners. (It’s also worth mentioning that the banquettes in the enclosed outdoor sheds at King are outfitted with “underbum” heating and lambswool blankets are available for guests.) Similarly, the Musket Room in Soho recently launched a winter pop-up on the sidewalk, with festive outdoors-only snacks like caviar-topped deviled eggs, sticky toffee pudding and hot spiked cider.
Use it or lose it
Roni Mazumdar and Chintan Pandya run a homestyle Indian restaurant, Adda, in Long Island City, Queens. Pre-pandemic, Mazumdar and Pandya were accustomed to feeding a big lunch crowd at Adda but now, the bulk of the restaurant’s business is at dinner. To accommodate the overflow, and make up for lost revenue, they need to maintain the outdoor structure. “From an economic standpoint, it matters. That’s kind of how I’m surviving so far,” Mazumdar says.
But if operators don’t make the most of changes to the outdoor dining rules, they risk losing it all – the city recently launched a campaign to find and remove unused outdoor sheds. Plus, it’s still a necessary option for Covid-cautious guests and an important source of revenue.
Some lucky restaurants have rebounded after a tough start in the pandemic, thanks in part to the expanded capacity provided by outdoor dining. The prospect of another lucrative summer season justifies the expense of maintaining outdoor dining through the winter. At the Queensboro, in Jackson Heights, Queens, Michael Fuquay says the restaurant is doing better business than ever after doubling its seating capacity with outdoor dining, but he wonders if these structures are better for business than they are for protecting people from catching Covid, especially with Omicron now in ascendence. “I don’t entirely understand restaurants that have fully enclosed outdoor spaces when I have a really comfortable, heated, air filtered indoor dining room.”
Clark agrees that some restaurants have gone too far. “When outdoor started, we were allowed to do outdoor dining with some regulations like partitions. Everybody tried to make the outdoors like the indoors by enclosing all the sides and then they tried to make it as warm as possible by closing the sides and adding a door. But that idea to me wasn’t smart because it’s not as safe as the outdoors. It’s smaller than the actual indoor restaurant. It could be more dangerous.”
Some New York City residents have also voiced concerns about the Open Restaurants program. In a lawsuit filed with the state supreme court in October 2021, a group of 22 petitioners are attempting to block the city from making the program permanent, citing the adverse environmental impact of outdoor sheds in their neighborhoods. One petitioner, Deborah Gonzalez who lives on Stanton Street in the Lower East Side, cited an increase in noise, trash, rat sightings, and a general loss of space and safety on her block.
At Winona’s, Cressida Greening is still deciding if she wants to put more time and money into winterizing her outdoor structure to guard against that pesky wind tunnel. The Omicron variant is making a strong case for it. “I’ve already noticed a few more people specifically write to me for outside,” she says. “We’re just trying to figure out what makes sense.”
Outdoor dining also doesn’t protect wait staff and chefs, who still have to work indoors. Shortly before this article was published, Winona’s announced it was shutting until after Christmas because of a high number of positive cases among staff. A similar scene is playing out at other restaurants in the city.
The Open Restaurants program has been extended to the end of 2022, but what happens after that is still unclear. Just recently, the city revealed that restaurants may have to pay to have outdoor structures, and the rules around construction are changing once again.
Attitudes towards outdoor dining in New York City have changed. “New Yorkers are not going to not eat out, right?” Greening asks. “Come hell or high water, they will do what they have to do.” And if hell really does come, say, in a gust of bone-chilling wind, Greening has one failsafe solution: “Just ply them with drinks.”