Minetta Taven’s outdoor dining setup. Photo: Andrea Pineda-Salgado
New York City’s restaurants, known for their gastronomical delights, delivered to customers any time day and night, were hit, and hit hard, since the pandemic began. To alleviate the burden of restaurants that could only offer takeout and delivery and no indoor dining, NYC introduced outdoor dining at establishments that previously did not have that option. Outdoor dining helped many restaurants stay afloat prior to vaccines being available and when the lockdown forbade customers from dining indoors. Cars shared the road with sheds, yurts and plywood chalets. However, after nearly two years, the decision whether outdoor dining is here to stay is up for a very lively debate.
Toward the end of 2020, the City Council voted to make outdoor dining permanent, and in late 2021, the City Planning commission voted for an amendment that would remove restrictions — such as deleting the words ‘sidewalk cafes’ from a zoning resolution — on outdoor dining. The amendment is awaiting approval by the City Council and the mayor. If the legislation were to pass, the Open Restaurants Program would make outdoor dining permanent. Business owners will be charged an initial fee of $1,050 and then a $525 fee annually thereafter.
In an almost nine-hour City Council hearing last Tuesday, council members and constituents discussed what the legislation would mean for New Yorkers if the program became permanent. The concept behind the Open Restaurants Program has divided New Yorkers, restaurant owners and the community.
“[Outdoor dining] has given us that lifeline”
Many restaurant owners support the Open Restaurant’s Program, as outdoor dining did wonders for their business during the pandemic. Alfredo Angueria, 46, owner of multiple restaurants in New York City including Beastro, Bronx Drafthouse, and Bricks and Hops, in the Bronx, said he wouldn’t be where he is now if it were not for outdoor dining.
“[Outdoor dining] has given us that lifeline, this has allowed us to continue to at least service customers. And things are getting better, but they’re not there. You could see it everywhere you go,” Angueria said. “Without outdoor dining. The city as they know it wouldn’t continue to be here.”
The Open Restaurants Program is set to commence when the pandemic is “over,” however, for many restaurant owners that is hard to picture. Even if Covid-19 were to disappear tomorrow, restaurants have lost a lot of money and many still have not recovered. Restaurants would still need outdoor dining, in addition to re-opened indoor seating, to make up for the income they have lost.
Dana Morrissey, 42, co-owner of multiple bars and restaurants in New York City including Bar Crudo and Chela, says outdoor dining must stay since their sales fluctuate every time there is a new variant.
“Our sales were down by about 75% in December and in January, [because of] the Omicron [variant] half of our holiday season got canceled. We had catering, we had events, we had lots of reservations and that was all gone. The reason why it wasn’t down 90% is because we had the road structure and because it’s a lot easier to control things like climate and things like that in those roadway structures,” she said. “Our thought goes to, ‘Okay so what about the next period? Is this something that we’re going to see every winter? Is there going to be some new variant? It’s going to cripple indoor dining again?’ And it seems pretty likely, you know, it’s definitely on all of our minds.”
The sheds must go
If outdoor dining were to become permanent and the Open Restaurants Program gets the green light, the sheds will have to be removed. Only umbrellas, tents and barriers will be allowed, which will offer a very different dining experience for New Yorkers. While restaurateurs welcome the permanency of outdoor dining, they want their structures to stay. The main reason is that they invested thousands to build their outdoor dining structures.
“We have invested tens of thousands of dollars into the shed. I mean, we built the initial version and then we modified it multiple times to be compliant. It got broken down by a drunk driver. Insurance only covers so much and we’re still paying back that money for the roadway structure,” said Morrissey. “If they come down, I’m not really sure what next season’s going to look like. I don’t know how to fortify the sidewalk dining to make it habitable in the winter months.”
Angueria agrees, “First of all, restaurateurs paid for [outdoor dining sheds] out of their pocket. They paid to build that structure for some of them at a very, very high cost, and we still haven’t recouped a lot of that back yet. Aside from the investment of these structures, having to bring it down and just having umbrellas in the street is a different experience. In the heavy rain the umbrellas on the street are not going to help, [with] the shed structures even if it’s raining, people are still inclined to sit outside. It offers us that flexibility, and protection wise, the sheds offer a level of protection from vehicles that just outdoor tables with umbrellas do not,” he said.
Morrissey’s outdoor dining shed was hit by a drunk driver in July 2021, and she was amazed at how the structure held up. The beam, which did end up with a crack, was strong enough to be pushed about 15 feet. Out of an abundance of caution, Morrissey tore it down and replaced her shed.
“I was shocked, honestly, at how strong it was. [The shed at Bar Crudo] got hit by a pickup truck. It got moved in front of the pet food store. That’s like two doors down from us … I think it really made me feel even that much more confident about roadway dining. If you were inside, I would think you’d be probably very scared, but I think ultimately you would have been okay,” she said.
Residents who live nearby have a different view
One the other hand, while outdoor dining serves restaurateurs well, many community members who live in areas where there are many restaurants cannot say the same. David Mulkins, president of the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors and an East Village resident for 38 years, is opposed to the Open Restaurants Program, and supports the sheds being taken down.
“While the emergency establishment of outdoor dining sheds during Covid was understandable, and strongly supported, they should not be permanent. With some shed networks stretching across five or more buildings, they are a dangerous obstruction for firemen, ambulances and snow plows,” he said.
Susan Setzer, 79, is the district manager of Community Board 3, which covers the East Village, Lower East Side and Chinatown—places with a lot of tourism and eateries. She said her community board voted against the Open Restaurants Program because their opinions were never taken into consideration and rules against noise and building protections were never strictly enforced.
“There is no ability to sit at the table and say, ‘this is what our needs are; these are what the problems are’. How do we resolve this? That is not happening. There is no opportunity for that. It has created frustration and outrage,” she said.
Setzer and other members of her community had originally welcomed outdoor dining as an emergency measure because of the pandemic, but it is not easy living above restaurants that stay open late.
Noise complaints abound
“The amount of complaints to 311 in our area for street noise has increased 169% since before the pandemic,” she said. In a town hall with Community Board 6, she stated that neighbors in the area were frustrated.
“Residents were very, very vocal about how they have lost [quality of] life, how they can’t sleep at night because none of the guidelines are enforced. They may not be able to have access to walk down the street, particularly people with disabilities,” she said. Setzer wishes the city was more strict when it came to noise complaints and such guidelines.
“They’re particularly frustrated because they’ve now suffered for two years, and it wasn’t that they were against the idea of open restaurants. It’s the fact that they cannot get the city to listen to them to enforce the noise code or these guidelines,” she said.
Mulkins knows that outdoor dining will be here for a while before it becomes permanent and encourages New Yorkers to think about others.
“Our neighborhood is densely populated with people who have to sleep at night and go to work
the next day. Even if there are no signs or restaurant staff telling you to keep the noise down,
any observant outdoor diner should know to be respectful of others, including the residents
whose apartments look out over these outdoor dining sheds,” he said.
How to bridge the divide
Angueria believes that in order to get others on board with outdoor dining, restaurateurs must be vigilant, as a restaurant owner and member of the New York Hospitality Alliance, he says listening to what others are saying is key.
“The first step is to become knowledgeable about your community. You know, just because you own a restaurant in the community doesn’t necessarily mean that you are an active participant in that community. Understanding how your community is. Who are the people in the community who are voicing these concerns? Are you active in the community board? You have your ear to the street. Do you have the pulse of your community so that you can be a good neighbor? That’s the first step. You can’t address concerns you don’t know exist,” he said.
Morrissey believes that the city should continue to help restaurants financially as many restaurants have not recovered from the pandemic and rely on outdoor dining for extra income.
“We know that works and it’s what is going to keep us going. We also need to have the Restaurant Revitalization Fund replenished. So many business owners were shut out of it or it was just completely wiped out. So the majority of businesses didn’t get [funds],” she said.
Setzer encourages New Yorkers to think about the other side, when dining out.
“What we would like people who are eating and drinking outdoors is to be mindful of the neighborhood. You know, you have babies sleeping above. You [should] be mindful, act as if it were in front of your home,” she said.