the underground gourmet

Alternate-Side Dining

With the reopening of New York restaurants, all food is street food.

Photo: Melissa Hom
Photo: Melissa Hom

As delightful as it can be, dining on the sidewalk in New York has always been a dicey pursuit. One of the last times the Underground Gourmet indulged in the act was at lunch last summer at Bar Pitti. It was a lovely June afternoon. The sky was a bright periwinkle blue, the sun was shining, the birds were tweeting, and although the intelligent-looking dachshund seated next to us (whose name we learned was Rolo) kept staring at our rigatoni Pitti, he was otherwise the soul of propriety. Even the construction site set up about ten feet from our table and blocking the view of traffic on Sixth Avenue was on a quiet lunch break of its own. Then all hell broke loose. The construction crew materialized and a pair of Cat 277D multi-terrain loaders suddenly engaged in a sort of monster-truck rally. Dust blew, engines roared, Rolo howled.

The next time we ate at a sidewalk café, we joked, we’d remember to bring hard hats, earplugs, dust masks, safety goggles, and dog biscuits. We reminisced about our Bar Pitti caper on the afternoon of Monday, June 22, as we sat un-hard-hatted but abundantly masked and occasionally gloved at a table next to a Range Rover outside Corner Bistro, getting ready to tuck into our Bistro Burgers.

Phase two of the city’s creaky, tentative reopening, permitting socially distanced outdoor dining on sidewalks and in curbside parking spots, had just kicked in, and we had braced ourselves to test the waters. In the healthily cautious — some would say overly cautious — Underground Gourmet household, going out to eat anywhere in summer 2020 falls somewhere on the risk-assessment scale between golfing during a lightning storm and jumping out of an airplane. To prepare for the expedition, we surveyed our supplies: Purell? Yes, his and hers. Mask? Check. Backup mask? Yup. Paper towels for opening doors and touching mystery surfaces? Uh-huh. Wipes for decontaminating chairs, Niles Crane style? No, that might be pushing it. Suitably equipped, we descended the stairs, habitually avoiding the elevator, and made our way into the natural light that still takes us by surprise every time we emerge from our live-work cave.

When the powers that be announced relaxed new guidelines for outdoor dining, the opportunity was seized upon by restaurants big and small, including the sort of establishments you’d never expect to go alfresco. But everyone from the hushed, cloistered sushi bar to the Korean-barbecue joint was getting in on the act, jury-rigging enclosures from plastic buckets and traffic barriers and co-opting precious curb space from prowling automobiles. For our first meal out, we wanted to try a place new to the outdoor-dining world, and our search led us west to Corner Bistro, the mid-20th-century brick-and-wood bunker famous for its cozy, no-frills atmosphere and hefty, no-frills pub burger. It turned out to be a good pick, geographically speaking: The corner location allows for tables on two sides, and a lush triangle garden (maintained by the prestigious Horticultural Society of New York, no less) provides a natural barrier from increasingly bustling Eighth Avenue.

Corner Bistro Outside is a different creature from the ancient, dim tavern we’ve patronized since the late ’80s. Instead of vintage back booths, here were new-seeming wood-slatted patio tables. Instead of a light level so low you could barely make out the wall menu, here the sun illuminated the chalkboard one propped up at the door. That menu, at least, was familiar, short and sweet with all the old classics: the Bistro Burger taller than it is wide, the BLT with its curly nest of crisp strips, the skinny pale-gold fries, the sleeper chili.

Service was quick, friendly, and masked. Gloveless, too, which concerned us at first until we double-checked the protocols and remembered that handwashing is recommended over latex. In the late afternoon of that first phase-two day, only two other tables were occupied, one around the corner. And the Bistro, unlike other neighborhood spots we’d heard rumors about, didn’t require us to abide by a time limit or, worse, sign a premeal waiver. Still, it was hard to shake off the nerves. When our beers arrived in plastic cups, we weren’t quite sure what to do with them, having spent the past three months wiping down or airing out nearly everything handed to us by a stranger. In the end, we grabbed them and drank, like in the old days, but not before figuring out where to store our masks. (After trying and rejecting the popular chin-guard, ear-dangler, or armband looks, we stowed them away in a backpack, Purelling our hands every step of the way.)

We’d like to say that once our food arrived on the usual Bistro-issue paper plates, we were able to shut out the world and our worries and dig into the beefy, half-pound vestige of pre-virus life, but that wouldn’t be quite accurate. Our neighbor at the next table had finished his lunch but hung around, still unmasked, and every time he coughed in our direction (twice, by our vigilant count), we jerked reflexively and angled our chairs further away, one time so abruptly our backpack fell into the gutter. Is this any way to live?, we wondered. It has to be for the time being, we agreed, as we stuffed a few more shoestrings in our mouths, washed them back with the last of our Heinekens, and reached for the Purell.

*A version of this article appears in the July 6, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

The Underground Gourmet Tries Alternate-Side Dining