Restaurant dining is back, if you can find a table

  • >> Pete Wells, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-06-25 14:37:43 BdST

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Patrons outside Veselka in Manhattan's East Village on June 22, 2020. The New York Times

On Monday, I had lunch at Veselka in the East Village. Normally I wouldn’t bother you with this fact. I’ve done the same thing at least a hundred times before. But this lunch, I’m pretty sure, I’ll remember for the rest of my life. It was the first restaurant food I’ve had since March that didn’t come out of a paper bag.

When I say I had lunch at Veselka, I don’t mean that I sat inside, of course. I was seated at one of the eight tables spread out along the East Ninth Street sidewalk, the one just below the neon sign that says “Open 24 Hours.” Veselka’s dining room is still a dark, empty cavern. Like many others in New York City, it remains off-limits to customers in an effort to tamp down the local COVID-19 outbreak. But June 18, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that starting Monday, restaurants could start serving outdoors, where the risk of transmitting the virus is lower.

Restaurants had been waiting for this decision — calling for it with mounting desperation, in fact. The mayor’s announcement still caught them off guard, though. They had just three days to get special city authorisations to place tables, at least 6 feet apart, on sidewalks and in curbside street-parking spaces.

By Tuesday morning, more than 4,100 restaurants had been approved. But shortly after noon Monday, when I began searching the streets of Chinatown, the Lower East Side and the East Village for a place to eat, not many had outdoor seating yet. Wu’s Wonton King was dark.

A few doors down East Broadway at Mission Chinese Food, Kate Bolster, a manager, was helping to put finishing touches on a new planter box, 5 feet tall and clementine-coloured, that had been fabricated over the weekend. It was going to be installed at the edge of a triangle across the street called Straus Park. Along with five identical boxes, the planter would cordon off a small dining area where customers could bring kung pao pastrami, mapo tofu and other items from the Mission Chinese Food canon, all packed in takeout containers.

“It’s been 48 hours since the command came down the line,” Bolster said. “It’s been fun, but it’s been some late nights.”

But the first lunch service wouldn’t take place until Wednesday, and I was hungry now. I headed for Orchard Street, in ordinary times one of the most promising stretches on the Lower East Side for anyone prospecting for a good meal. Some restaurants were closed because it was Monday, others because they never serve lunch, but tape measures and power tools were out in front of Regina’s Grocery and Cheeky Sandwiches. It was takeout-only at Russ & Daughters Cafe. Contrair — the ad hoc merger of Contra and Wildair that takes online pickup and delivery orders for crab congee, chipotle-braised tripe and bottles of far-flung natural wines — was still empty. At the corner of Rivington, the Roman sandwich shop Trapizzino hid behind plywood.

Katz’s was doing a brisk takeout business, all things considered, but there were no tables out on Houston or Ludlow Streets. Ludlow Street is blocked to cars and trucks under a city programme, called Open Streets, which has temporarily given 43 miles of pavement to walkers and cyclists. It would be a good spot to eat a knoblewurst or two, but outdoor dining won’t be expanded to the Open Streets blocks until July.

There was more plywood along Avenue A. Sheets of it were being unscrewed from the windows of TabeTomo, a tsukemen specialist across from Tompkins Square Park. There were tables outside — a two-top and a four-top, each with its own patio umbrella. The afternoon was warm and getting warmer, and the prospect of a plate of chilled noodles and cold dipping sauce in the shade held a powerful attraction. But TabeTomo, like a number of other restaurants around the city, had set up outdoor seating for its takeout customers earlier this month, before it was officially allowed. I admired the enterprise, but I wanted to eat at a table that was just seeing its first action of the season.

In the end, Veselka came through for me as I knew it would, as it had so often over the years for me and anybody else who needed a dose of Ukrainian hospitality. The East Village never feels more like a village than inside Veselka’s walls, where people reading Ferrante sit across from people reading Polish newspapers, where solitary types can hide and new couples can pretend to hide, where young men dress like roadies and old men dress like retired cardsharps, and all of them drink coffee.

That was more or less the scene Monday, although it took place outside the walls. Veselka has had a sidewalk cafe for several years and had been packing food for takeout and delivery for some time. So when Monday arrived, all it needed to do was to install the metal pen around its outdoor space and leave more room than usual between the tables.

Restaurants in midtown and the financial district that rely on office workers may not find the new outdoor dining rules very helpful. Places targeting out-of-towners are in a tough spot, too. But coffee shops, sandwich joints, pizzerias and other mainstays of residential areas are well-positioned to take advantage of outdoor dining.

“This is a time, in some cases, where if you’re a neighbourhood restaurant and you rely on people who live in the community, you may fare a bit better,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance. Rigie, whose group rarely sees eye to eye with bureaucrats, seemed a little astonished Monday. Ordinarily, acquiring a sidewalk cafe permit takes around six months and costs roughly $5,000. In a single weekend, thousands of restaurants had been cleared with no application fee.

“I’ve been fighting bureaucracy and red tape for a long time, and this program really cuts out the red tape and costs for restaurant owners,” he said. “It’s really remarkable.”

Polly Trottenberg, who as commissioner of the Department of Transportation is overseeing the new approval process, was almost giddy at how quickly it was moving, as if she were the owner of a golf cart who’d just discovered it could reach highway speed.

“It was quite clear that a process in which we would have to survey and certify everything — we would never be able to do that in real time,” she said. “So we leaned into a different model, which I’ll admit is unusual in New York City and is probably one of the most liberal in the country right now.”

Transportation commissioners have not historically had much jurisdiction over restaurants, but the outdoor dining program happens to dovetail with the department’s wider effort to turn some of the city’s streets over to walkers, runners and skateboarders. That list now includes eaters and drinkers, which anybody who enjoys the spectacle of life played out in public will recognise as a promising move.

There are even signals emanating from City Hall that some of this new street and sidewalk dining could, conceivably, possibly, outlast the pandemic. “This will be a great conversation to have towards the end of the summer,” Trottenberg said. “We’ll have lots of information then about how well it’s worked.”

My own view is that change can’t come fast enough. Restaurants need to make money. New Yorkers need to get out of their apartments, even if it means wearing masks, carrying hand sanitizer and talking across longer-than-usual distances. None of this bothered me at Veselka. I took off my mask for about 15 minutes and then retied it again when I’d finished lunch: cold borscht and a mixed plate of boiled pierogies, half cheese and half blueberry.

I liked it all, especially the slightly scouring tartness of the cherry lime rickey, but if there had been any problems I wouldn’t tell you about them. Now is not the time for criticizing. Any restaurant that is serving food now is a good restaurant.

But it is a time for imagining. Once we don’t need to fear COVID-19, what would the city look like if more of our dining spaces spilled over into the sidewalks and streets? Would it look like the crazy, whirling, profane outdoor feast of “Fellini’s Roma,” with swaddled babies passed around in baskets and conversations that revolve almost entirely around sex, excrement and cacio e pepe shouted from table to table? New York is too fancy for that now. (By 1972, when Fellini conjured it up, Rome was probably too fancy for it.) But those of us who love restaurants have been unsettled lately by how many new ones have taken the form of whispery, darkened, expensive cloisters. A little spaghetti in the streets couldn’t hurt.

There was one small glitch at Veselka. It took longer than usual for the check to arrive — long enough that my server apologised. She didn’t need to. I would have waited all day.

c.2020 The New York Times Company