The New Problems of Outdoor Dining

A New York server over the weekend. Photo: Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

When Maxi Lau opened her Flushing restaurant Maxi’s Noodles for outdoor dining a couple of weeks ago, it was the first time she’d offered the full menu since the citywide restaurant shutdown order in mid-March. Since then, Lau had offered a limited menu of uncooked wontons and dumplings that customers could make at home, and had donated meals to hospitals. When she heard that restaurants would be allowed to open with expanded outdoor seating on June 22, she rushed to apply and says her permit was approved within “minutes.”

With 23 feet of sidewalk space, she had ample room to spread out customers. She places her three existing tables outside and says she’s now “slammed every day.” Sometimes, though, it’s the weather that’s doing the slamming. “One time when it started to pour, I had a family of ten eating outside. I felt so bad,” Lau recalls. “I don’t have umbrellas or a pop-up tent. So when it does rain, we scatter to pull all of the tables and chairs inside.” Now, she studies weather reports with an intensity typically reserved for sacred texts. “Sometimes we risk it.”

In June, when Mayor de Blasio announced plans for expanded outdoor dining, he did so by saying, “We’re gonna make sure we save restaurants.” As he explained, “The idea is to bring the customers back. Bring the livelihoods of the people who work there back. Bring the money back in to keep the restaurants going. Obviously doing it in a safe way.” De Blasio added, “We’re gonna make it work, and outdoor dining is the way forward.”

It was always clear that, despite the mayor’s sales pitch, depending on outdoor dining was an imperfect solution for New York’s struggling restaurants, but what’s become clear in its first few weeks is that the situation can present some unprecedented, and unwelcome, logistical hurdles for operators, staff, and customers. There are the obvious safety concerns for staff and customers, including questions about enforcement; last-minute bureaucratic changes, such as to the required thickness of barriers, have frustrated owners; and, this being New York, rats. At one Brooklyn restaurant on Sunday, I saw several unmasked customers retrieve their orders while standing next to a sign that said people must wear masks.

“They’re trying to make it like it’s a good thing, restaurants have an advantage by having this outdoor seating,” says Chris Cheung, the chef-owner of East Wind Snack Shop. “From what I’m seeing, it’s the middle of July,” he argues. “Your outdoor seating is only really valid at nights, and only really on weekend nights — it really doesn’t give restaurants a big boost.” Cheung admits he’s hesitant to open for outdoor dining, because his storefronts are small, it would require some investment at a time when money is tighter than ever, also, it requires contending with extremely unpredictable weather.

While rainfall in New York in June was actually less than in an average year, weather in recent weeks has involved a hail storm, a near-daily threat of showers, and, as of this past Friday, Tropical Storm Fay. (The weather wasn’t as bad as expected and on Saturday the storm was downgraded to a tropical depression.) The uncertainty around the weather creates near-constant stress for the people who have to decide whether or not it’s worth opening on any given day. “Lately, the last few days, it’s been raining nonstop,” says Mouna Thiam, who owns the café and creperie Le Paris Dakar in Bed-Stuy and who is currently getting ready to open for outdoor dining. “If every time it’s raining you have to stop serving, it could be an issue.”

Even when the weather is nice, establishing a viable outdoor-dining program can be burdensome. Maymuuna (Mona) Birjeeb of Harlem’s Safari says that it hasn’t changed things for her restaurant, which has struggled since the shutdown, calling outdoor dining “very challenging.” In Bay Ridge, the mother-daughter owners of the famous Palestinian spot Tanoreen set up a sidewalk café for the first time ever, with seating for 36 people. They took extra efforts to re-create the feeling of their regular restaurant, and general manager Jumana Bishara, daughter of chef-owner Rawia Bishara, says it cost a few thousand dollars to set up. “We realize it’s an investment, and hope it’ll pay off in the next few months while we’re allowed to do this,” she says. “Nothing short of what it was before COVID is going to be enough to keep us where we need to be, but we’re trying to make it work.”

Bishara says the weather is just “another thing to stress about.” One recent afternoon, she says she made the mistake of anticipating rain and closing — only for the rain to never come. “We’re at the whim of mother nature, basically. I have people scheduled rain or shine. If it gets really bad, we have to pack it up.”

This is a concern for workers as well, who depend on tips or hourly wages. “Now it’s like I’m back to that whole thing about working at a rooftop bar,” says Nikol Burgos Sevilla, who works at the Prospect Heights cocktail bar Sweet Polly. “I’ll be fine, but I couldn’t work [Friday]. My shift was canceled, and it was in the middle of my shift on Thursday.”

The viability of an outdoor setup also depends greatly on geography. “The East Village is crazy, all outdoor dining available, versus you go to Chinatown and it’s a dead zone, what’s going on here?” says Lau. “I would say 85 to 90 percent of shops are open for take-out. I don’t know if they’re not aware that they can request a permit, or they just don’t think they have enough space.”

It can be luck of the draw, as it was for the owners of the Bronx’s Seis Vecinos, a Honduran and Mexican restaurant. When the restaurant relocated to its current space, they got a retractable awning with the intention of always having outdoor dining. But while their location in front of a fire zone had previously prevented them from getting a sidewalk café permit, they’ve now benefited, Omar Canales says, from their location being “very tucked in.”

For others, the solution is not to try and re-create the indoor-dining experience on the street, but to instead take advantage of the unique qualities that an outdoor setup offers. At Greenpoint’s Vietnamese restaurant Di an Di, which is open for outdoor dining on weekends, sous-chef Quan Ngo and head chef Dennis Ngo set up binchotan grills, with buckets of beer over ice, while they cook and serve people. “Almost a similar experience like if you were at a street stall in Vietnam,” Quan says. “We had this idea because when is the next time we’re able to grill and cook outside?”

At the same time, outdoor dining isn’t really driving business at Di an Di, and they aren’t trying to depend on it. “The route of outdoor dining is very limited and there is definitely an end to this,” Quan explains. “Everyone knows it’s just something we have to do and to hold us down until we can have guests come inside and eat.”

But, like everyone else I talked to for this story, Quan emphasized that he is in no rush to move service indoors, until it can be done safely. And who knows when that will happen? As Bridget Read wrote on the Cut, “We’ve been taught to think that ‘defeating the virus’ is a matter of personal choice … totally minimizing the government’s role in utterly botching the situation.” While operators may be grateful to even have the chance to expand outdoor service, it’s another situation where they’ve largely been left to fend for themselves, trying to parse conflicting advice and, well, weather an ongoing, and entirely unpredictable storm.

For some, even the potential to make more money with outdoor dining does not outweigh the ever-present danger of COVID-19. Burgos Sevilla says that she would have “a much, much harder time” going back to work at a business where she felt she couldn’t trust management. “Our manager wants nothing more than our safety,” she says. While Derek Wu recently reopened his popular Chinatown spot, Wu’s Wonton King, for takeout and delivery, he says any kind of full-service dining is not an option. “It’s still dangerous now, and I have to take care of my workers,” he says. Then, he adds, “Family over everything.”

The New Problems of Outdoor Dining