The Best of New York’s Bold Outdoor Dining Experiences
(Bloomberg) -- If there’s a bright spot in the city’s landscape during the summer of Covid-19, it has been the creativity with which the 10,000-plus restaurants approved for outdoor dining have embraced the moment.
The new, complex reality of the pandemic has pushed restaurateurs to redefine their versions of hospitality on the streets, even as the promise of indoor dining fades further into 2020.
The experiments have largely been a success—Mayor Bill de Blasio estimated that 80,000 jobs were saved because of it—which was certainly not a given when all this began.
“Many places were on the brink of closing. Outdoor dining provides a financial shot of life to restaurants, but it has also helped bring vibrancy back to city streets,” says Andrew Rigie, executive director of New York’s Hospitality Alliance. “It gives light to dark streets and brings people back together.”
He adds: “Outdoor dining in New York brings to mind that Churchill quote: ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste.’”
The phenomenon has also given the city a feeling of life, rainstorms and car crashes notwithstanding. And its fostered a sense of community in neighborhoods. “Dining on our city’s sidewalks and street space has allowed New Yorkers across the city to socialize and enjoy their neighborhoods while supporting local businesses,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson via email. (Nonetheless, the Speaker is calling for New York's restaurants to be allowed to open for indoor dining.)
“We’re looking forward to at least two more months of outdoor dining, and we’ll be bringing the program back next spring. It’s the foundation for a new New York City tradition,” says Mitch Schwartz, Mayor de Blasio’s deputy spokesman, by email. The impending end of outdoor dining in on Oct. 31 is cause for fear among New York restaurants; the Mayor has hinted that the deadline will be extended.
Programs for restaurants include DineOut NYC: The communal dining structures created by famed restaurant designer David Rockwell have helped activate four New York neighborhoods, in places like the South Bronx. One installed in mid-August on a stretch of Woodside Avenue in Queens has already driven up neighborhood business by 15 % to 20%, according to local restaurateur Boyd Vichkul.
Bloomberg Pursuits went out on New York’s streets to see how Vichkul’s place and 13 others have succeeded with outdoor dining, from a new Brooklyn Caribbean hang-out to an exuberant Bronx beer garden and a well-heeled Manhattan dolce vita hangout that has used the pandemic to highlight social justice issues.
The exuberant Kokomo opened their brand new restaurant on June 26, with husband and wife team Kevol and Ria Graham offering “the new Caribbean experience.” They’re located in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, but the restaurant feels a world away. The Grahams have created a new revenue source, “Picnic in the Park” that is also an option for guests who don't want to wait on the hours-long line. A riot of plants delineates the dining platform; a mural celebrating Bob Marley decorates an exterior wall. 65 Kent Ave., Brooklyn
Kevol: “We had planned to open in April and wow people with our high-impact interior design. When Covid hit, we turned that feeling into an outdoor, island vibe. It actually worked out for us. People are scared to travel. Instead of getting on a plane, they come here.”
Ria: “But we have challenges, especially to keep social distancing outside. The city has created a culture of outdoor bars, where people buy a drink and want to turn it into a party. I literally sweat off my makeup on the daily trying to get people to social distance. We’re so grateful for outdoor dining. if it didn’t happen, we would have been out of business before we even opened. We’re doing OK, staying afloat. Our staff is close to 30 people; they’re getting paid. I just can’t wait until the day I get paid, too.”
BEST SELLERS: “The jerk chicken is popular. Also the rasta pasta flatbread, penne pasta with our take on alfredo sauce with cheese, and jerk seasonings with shrimp or chicken,” explains Kevol. “We want to have fun with food that’s popular in the Caribbean, like rasta pasta [topped with peppers and spices]. A lot of people order the soca bathtub cocktail, a sorrel milk shake served in a tub with a rubber duckie, and put it on Instagram.”
On a major Harlem thoroughfare in Manhattan, the engaging Caribbean spot Lolo’s has some 10 tables arrayed under a bubble gum-pink canopy on a sunny, yellow lattice platform and lined up in front of a vibrant, blue mural next to the restaurant. Chef Raymond Monhan and his wife Skai occasionally use the back of their renovated 1956 GMC truck, parked outside, as a “private dining room.” 303 W. 116 St., Manhattan
Raymond: “Lolo’s was like a secret hideaway. Now that people are eating our food outside, it’s increased our visibility. And the [Black Lives Matter] protesters, the movement to support black business, has brought attention to Lolo’s.”
Skai: “Believe it or not, our sales have increased. We hit a peak on Juneteenth. The uptick has stayed. Business has gone up about 15%.”
BEST SELLERS: “We changed the menu to have more full-on meals, like the food trucks in the Caribbean that locals go to,” says Raymond. “We had jerk ribs as an app; now we serve them with broccoli and rice and sauce. We turned salmon from a roll to a warm grain bowl. But our No. 1 most popular item, besides our new to-go slushie drinks, is the steam pot: Snow crab and shrimp and potatoes and corn. It’s meant to be eaten outdoors.”
At Vinateria, her stylish Italian spot, owner and Harlem native Yvette Leeper-Bueno has made an expanded outdoor space into a full-blown restaurant experience. She installed handsome silver planters around the tables on 119 street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, and added a well-stocked deli case with pastas, pastries, and prepared sauces to bump up her takeout business, which now represents about 20% of her sales. 2211 Frederick Douglass Blvd., Manhattan
Leeper-Bueno: “Our Happy Hour is from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Beers are $4, bites start at $8. We had to shave off midnight hours because of the government curfew, so we started happy hour early to show Harlem a little love. The design was done in collaboration with my friends at Salty Labs [the noted Brooklyn design studio]: The planters and lit-up trees make the place feel alive. We have 55 seats for outdoor dining, pretty much the same as our indoor dining room, and serve about 1,000 people per week. With the increased visibility, on some days, business is even better than last summer.”
“But it’s been a big investment to expand outdoor dining. Each umbrella costs between $500 and $900. I hope they extend the program for a few years, because it costs a fair amount of money to make this safe and comfortable. And we’d like guidance from the city on whether we can use heaters outside, to extend people’s comfort as the weather becomes chillier.”
BEST SELLERS: “Our most signature dish is black spaghetti with seafood, it’s savory and briny, with mussels and octopus,” says Leeper-Bueno. “We reworked our prices. Now we’re pushing $15 pastas like linguine with vodka sauce.”
Last summer, Island Oyster was able to pack in up to 1,000 people at a time on a sunny Saturday. This year, the glorious Governors Island café has a 200-person capacity, and the raucous banquettes that face Manhattan’s skyline have been replaced by individual high-top tables. The crowd, from all over the city, is little changed though, from friends traveling from the Bronx and Brooklyn for a destination birthday celebration to a customer continually shut down in her attempts to grab an Uber. Governors Island
General Manager Delroy Mcree: “This represents an escape for people who can’t travel. I’m from Saint Vincent, so I feel right at home watching the jet skis go by here. On Saturdays, we still get absolutely crushed. We serve 1,000 people, and I wish we could do twice that many. We’re not open at night anymore. The last ferry on weekends is 7 p.m.; we get a private rig one hour later, after we break the place down.
“You see the big difference at the bar: we’ve pre-spaced seats, which used to be wall-to-wall guests. People order from menus and then go to a pick-up area to get their food in take out containers. It’s more organized. But these were not the changes we had planned. We were going to add more seating, and shaded cabanas. Maybe next year.”
Chef Dennis Hatzinger: “The take out packaging has taken away some of our biggest headaches. We used to serve the food plated: The tops of the burger buns would blow away; the microgreen garnish would blow everywhere. Now the food is in covered containers, everything stays put.”
BEST SELLERS: “The new Lobster BLT is very popular. But even at reduced capacity we’ll do 2,500 oysters this weekend,” notes Hatzinger. “An oyster shucker is the hardest position to find, besides a dishwasher right now. There’s so much talent in the kitchen; our lead cook was a sous chef at Le Bernardin. But we can’t find a good oyster shucker.”
Ampia, which opened in June after Governor Andrew Cuomo approved outdoor dining, doesn’t look like a typical Wall Street rooftop bar. The 4,500-square-foot space on the third floor of an historic building kitty-corner from Fraunces Tavern is stocked with mismatched chairs and tables, dozens of plants, and a few eye-catching private greenhouses, sourced by owners Anisa Iuliano and her husband, chef Michele Iuliano. His crowd-pleasing Italian menu includes dishes he served at Gnoccheria Wall Street on the building’s second floor. 100 Broad St., Manhattan
Iuliano: “We were supposed to open in April with a beer garden concept. We came up with a new name, Ampia, which means ‘space’ in Italian. I was researching plants, and greenhouse push ads kept coming up, so I bought some for around $680 each. They’re reserved three weeks in advance, and people are copying us.
“If it drizzles, we have the greenhouses, but capacity goes down as low as 10%. In good weather, we serve 80 people. We rented this space [including Gnocheria Wall Street] specifically for the roof, so we are making the best of a bad situation—especially with the 11 p.m. mandate to shut down. That’s not when people want to leave a rooftop bar. Maybe this will take off. I have 300 people coming for lunch this weekend.”
BEST SELLERS: “We want to make panini di pesce—seafood panini—a thing,” says Iuliano. “We haves ones with scallops, with crab cakes, with lobster.”
On a 24,000-square-foot block, Gitano Garden of Love is a palm tree-filled oasis near the crowded Holland Tunnel entrance. The food evokes a Tulum, Mexico, hangout: tostadas, guacamole, and margarita punch bowls. But James Gardner, founder of the Gitano Group and owner of the Garden of Love, has instituted changes in addition to the mandated distance requirements at the club-vibe spot. Where there were cabanas filled all day with guests drinking rosé, Gardner has created art that celebrates social justice issues and has started pouring fund-raising cocktails. 76 Varick St., Manhattan
Gardner: “I worked at Goldman Sachs for four years on tech strategy, I helped initiate algorithmic trading. To adapt to this new reality, we redesigned the menu as an e-commerce site that goes beyond a QR code. Guests scan the menu, add their food to the cart and pay, then it’s delivered to the table. The technology addresses the challenges we had before: flagging down a waiter in the crowded room.
“We’re also devoting space to social-change perspectives. Connie Girl [Connie Fleming] is a legend in trans NY. She created a mural for us that celebrates Black Trans Lives Matter. We also created drinks, the Connie Girl and the S Express, and portions of sales go to Black Trans Lives Matter groups. We’ve raised around $8,000 so far. But this might be our last summer. The space is being developed into a school, so there’s a sense that we might not have this again. That adds to the unreality of this whole season.”
BEST SELLERS: “The King Crab tostada and chipotle albondigas [meatballs] made with wagyu bison, those are new,” says Gardner. “We always have tostadas on the menu; they fit the mood.”
In an otherwise sedate section of Forest Hills, this barbecue spot highlights Queens’s melting pot flavors. The restaurant is named for the nickname owner Rohan Aggarwal grew up calling Queens Boulevard: “Queens Bully.” To create outdoor dining at his three-year-old spot, Aggarwal set up bright yellow umbrellas on a platform he had built. Tables are populated with multigenerational families, FedEx delivery workers, and neighbors in Bikini Kills T-shirts. 113-30 Queens Blvd., Queens
Aggarwal: “My dad started the Indian restaurant chain Baluchi’s about 20 years ago. This space used to be a Baluchi’s. My father was raised as a vegetarian, but he went crazy when he first tasted barbecue beef. He even purchased a smoker. I use it for barbecue that represents Queens, dishes like butter chicken wings. Everyone loves them, everyone knows Indian butter chicken.
“Last year, there would still be a crowd at 1 a.m. Now we can’t seat later than 10. We were a major place for birthdays, bridal showers. We had two weddings booked for this summer; one is postponed until next summer. There won’t be a dull moment in 2021. Hopefully.”
BEST SELLERS: “Our menu runs the range, from chicken and waffles—you can get them Nashville hot—to smoked brisket,” explains Aggarwal. “This summer we added BBQ jackfruit, which has a meat-like texture and holds the smoky flavor, for vegetarians diners its doing well. We go through a lot of frozen mango margaritas, too. Our cocktails in pouches are selling well.”
A restaurant that was literally made for the moment, Outerspace was built over two months during the pandemic. Set behind 99 Scott Ave., an events space, and adjacent to a lot filled with towering yellow JCB cranes, the maze-like design features tables separated by plants that tower over the guests. The menu is Mexican-influenced and vegetarian-forward: Mole verde accompanies the chicken and the grilled maitake mushrooms. Ubers line up along the industrial Bushwick street, and the scene evokes a Solange video—an observation that people wanting to host an event have made to co-owner Molly McIver. 99 Scott Ave., Brooklyn
McIver: “Outerspace is basically a pop-up restaurant concept that we opened at the end of July with the restrictions of Covid in mind. We’re in the same position as most small business owners; we have to evolve to survive in creative ways. This has got the summer vibes, with pitcher drinks and a lot of grilled food. But we can change it up if we need to.”
BEST SELLERS: “The chefs come from Cosme and Blanca, the kitchen is outdoors, the menu has that feel to it,” notes McIver. “The one constant is the smoky watermelon; you’ll see that drink on most tables. The rotisserie chicken with mole: That gets a lot of orders.”
On the South Bronx’s gentrifying Harlem River waterfront, Bricks & Hops opened in 2019 as a beer hall, emphasizing local brews such as the stout-like Free Form Jazz Odyssey from Queens. Now the action happens in the colorful, plant-lined back garden. The place is co-owned by former NFL star Willie Colon, who grew up nearby, and Junior Martinez who owns other Bronx hotspots like Drafthouse, near Yankee Stadium. Chef Luis Martinez cooked at Charlie Palmer Steak in midtown before running the kitchen at Bricks & Hops. Even at reduced capacity—there are only a handful of tables in the back—the place has vibrant energy.
“I’ve been here three times this week already. I live five minutes away, I used to have to go to Manhattan for this experience; now Manhattan can come to me,” says customer Jose Vales, here with a group of friends and a table full of frozen margaritas one weekday afternoon. 65 Bruckner Blvd., Bronx
Chef Luis Martinez: “Weekend brunch is when we get the most crowded; people come for dishes like chicken and waffle sliders with maple bacon. But business has changed. We used to have DJ Dinero, Willie Colon’s DJ, spinning at brunch. When it was football season on a Sunday, it would be the crowded party you wanted to be at. Wings everywhere, people everywhere, fun everywhere. The Boogie Down Bronx, this was it. I can’t wait for it to come back.”
BEST SELLERS: “The menu incorporates flavors from all over. For the steak frites, I marinate the meat for 24 hours in orange juice and lime juice, jalapeños—it’s got Latin American flavors,” explains Martinez. “The chimi sliders are Dominican-influenced. I use fried plantains instead of a bun for mini Angus beef burgers.”
This summer, the city allowed the hallowed Italian restaurants along Arthur Avenue to operate on the street. That makes Mexican joint Estrellita Poblano 3 stand out more prominently among its neighbors. The restaurant is run by George Pirgousis, a nephew of owners Leonardo and Kiki Gonzalez. Outdoor seats, protected by a bright astroturf-covered barricade, mix locals with students in purple Fordham hats, Westchester tourists, and cooks from Randazzo’s across the street. 2328 Arthur Ave., Bronx
Pirgousis: “We’ve been on this block for 15 years, and we’re the new kids here. We stand out as the Mexican restaurant on Arthur Avenue, but we work together as a community, sharing news and information about constructing outdoor spaces, which is good because the way the city handled it has been a mess. The summer is usually slow, because people go away. Now we can gear up for Fordham students coming back. But we can’t get indoor dining back soon enough. We’ve lost tons of business from the pandemic.”
BEST SELLERS: “You see a lot of orders for the classics, the carnitas, and al pastor tacos,” says Pirgousis.
Woodside Avenue, Queens
Among the outstanding food neighborhoods in Queens, the most diverse county in the country, according to a 2019 Axios study, a stretch of Woodside Avenue in Elmhurst is dominated by Thai spots. Each has a different specialty: One storefront is excels at noodles, another curries, and another for desserts.
Pata Paplean (76-21 Woodside Ave.) started as a Thai cocktail bar from a group who met working at a Queens restaurant, with unconvetional drinks such as the vodka-based Tom Yum inspired by the famed soup. Noodle dishes were a weekend special. Now food options like Nam Tok soup with pork blood broth are offered daily, starting at noon, to make up for the lack of bar business and the earlier closing hours.
“On the weekends, when the city closes down Woodside Avenue, our business is coming back to what it was last summer,” says co-owner Naratip Klinsrisuk.
Next door, at Tea Cup Cafe (76-23 Woodside Ave), owner Boyd Vichkul has also seen an increase in weekend customers. His restaurant has a loyal following for satisfying Thai dishes, from larb and duck noodle soup to fried pork belly with rice. But Vichkul is concerned about the future. “We spent almost $5,000 setting this up, so I hope it’s not money we wasted for one summer of outdoor dining,” he says.
At Khao Nom (42-06 77th St.), the specialty is Thai sweets, such as exquisite pia cakes, small pastries stuffed with taro and salted egg yolk, and chewy sweet black and white sticky rice cakes, made by Bangkok-born Saralai Sarapaivantit. She appreciates how outdoor dining has expanded the possibilities of her small place.
“Before, our food was just grab and go,” Sarapaivantit explains. “Guests like this better, to sit with their food; inside, there’s not much space to eat.” But like every other restaurateur in New York, she wonders how she can keep this going when the weather gets cold. “People want to relax outside now, in the summer, but in the winter?”
Most restaurants have taken advantage of outdoor dining program by expanding their seating. The Brooklyn barbecue spot Morgan’s already had a robust patio dining scene; social distancing restrictions have forced it to remove some of the picnic tables and add two tops tables. In the process, outdoor seating went from 80 to 40, cutting into business. It has seen some upticks, including a 40% increase in weekday lunchtime business, according to owner Penny Glazier. 267 Flatbush Ave., Brooklyn
Chef Cenobio Canalizo: “One big change from last summer is that people are ordering appetizers. Before, they would go straight to the smoked meat; now, after five months of being locked up in their houses, they start with chicken wings, Frito pie. It’s an extra sell for us, and the check average is a little higher—which is good, because we lost 50% capacity outside. We’re also selling 100% more desserts than last year. I’m from Mexico; I added a couple tacos to see if they would sell, and they are. Customers aren’t saying no to anything.”
BEST SELLERS: “The fatty brisket smoked for 12 hours,” lists Canalizo. “The mac and cheese—we have a whole menu of them. And desserts: I sell a lot of pie and fried Oreos.”
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