Outdoor dining is facing an uncertain future. Officially, the city wants to make it “permanent,” but has yet to figure out exactly what that means (and has been cracking down on unused structures). A vocal contingent of New Yorkers, citing noise and rats and lack of parking, is trying to block it from happening at all. Certain emergency measures, like propane heaters, are already gone. In the end, the greatest threat might be the weather: At some point, it will be winter, and this year, barring more disaster, it will be nice to go inside.
As life returns to some version of normal, there are new questions. For example: Will people want to eat spaghetti in a streetside shack in January? And what happens to the streeteries if they don’t?
For some restaurants, a world without curbside dining would be back to business as usual. But others have never known a world without it. In Brooklyn, Victor is in this second camp. A breezy Mediterranean spot on the banks of the Gowanus, the restaurant has been functionally half-outdoors since it opened this past March: 65 seats inside, and 70 more outside. The extensive outdoor setup has become part of the restaurant’s identity, an essential key to the pleasant illusion that you are on vacation in Europe. As they plan for their first winter against a changing landscape, owners Ryan Angulo and Ian Alvarez talked to Grub about what they’re doing, what they’re thinking, and what happens now.
Let’s paint the picture: You’re on the corner of Nevins and Sackett Street in Gowanus. What’s your setup like?
Ian Alvarez: So we have the covered-veranda part — that’s the structure in the actual street, three parking spaces on Sackett — which holds about 30 seats or so. And then there are another 30 or 40 seats on the sidewalk alongside the restaurant. All summer, we’ve done pretty well in filling that section. Most nights and weekends, we turn it a couple of times. In the cooler weather, we’re going to lose that sidewalk seating and go down to just the veranda, probably.
It seems like one potential advantage — although “advantage” might be too strong a word — of opening mid-pandemic is that at least you didn’t have to make any adjustments. You knew you’d be doing at least some outdoor seating, right?
Ryan Angulo: For the first week or so that we were open, we tried to do just the indoor seating and the sidewalk tables, but we realized very quickly that people wanted more seating outside. I think the second week we were open, we got together with a friend of ours and he helped figure out the streetery part. It was the best business decision we made — like, it was instantly full. That’s what people obviously wanted.
Is it still?
RA: There are a lot of people now that still don’t want to dine inside, vaccinated or unvaccinated — it doesn’t matter. They’re just not comfortable with it. I have friends who come to the restaurant, but only if they can eat outside. It’s just still a very important thing for people. I would say most nights, the outdoor structure fills up first, and then the dining room. But more and more people are starting to dine inside.
IA: We also run into this strange thing where, when we have the prospect of bad weather coming in, we’ll call the reservations at those sidewalk tables, and we’ll tell them, “Hey, the weather’s kind of 50/50 right now, so we’ll hold onto your reservation, but we just want to give you the opportunity to move inside.” And we often find that people will keep their outside table, they’ll show up, and then, once they’re there, if for some reason they can’t sit outside, then they’re ready to come inside. It’s just the booking of it — they don’t want to allow themselves to book the tables.
I want to get a sense of the numbers here. How much did you spend building that out?
RA: Well, it’s an ongoing kind of thing. We had the initial expense of building it, and then the expense of buying all the furniture for it — thank God for Ikea, right? — and then about two months ago, we started the process of getting more electricity to it so that we could have heaters for when it gets cooler. Ian and I have also done some work maintaining it, like we just put up plastic shields around a couple of the sides to block the wind and keep in some of that heat. It’s a lot.
IA: We’re somewhere around 30 grand, all in. Part of that, though — I think this is a thing people don’t realize — is getting these things heated. Getting power to them requires quite a bit of electrical maneuvering. To just run extension cords across the sidewalk from inside the restaurant is technically illegal, which means you have to figure out a way to get power from the building, over the street, and into the shacks themselves. And the heaters require a lot of power. So for us, we had to put in a whole new panel just to be able to heat this thing adequately, because when we tried to do it pretty inadequately last March with some cheap heaters that we were just plugging in, we would blow our breakers constantly throughout the night. We’d lose our lights; we’d lose our music. In order to really heat this thing properly, we had to invest $15,000. You know, they look like these shacks that just get thrown up, but there’s a lot of planning and a lot of infrastructure that needs to go into keeping them operating properly.
Right! It’s expensive. And at the same time, it may or may not be temporary. You’re making all these investments knowing the rules are going to change.
IA: You’re constantly playing Stratego with this thing. For us, the electrical was something we could look at as an investment for the future, regardless of what happens with outdoor dining. Maybe we’ll go back to café licenses, or maybe these shacks will be forever, or maybe we could take over some more space in a backyard-type thing — no matter what, having more electric power will be good. The regulations are constantly moving, so it’s like, “What can we do that will be good for right now, but also, hopefully, that we’ll be able to use later on as well.” You don’t want to put too much money into something you can’t find any use for once the city decides it doesn’t want to do this stuff anymore.
Do you think that long-term outdoor dining is worth fighting for?
RA: The outdoor structure was such a part of the restaurant from the beginning, from our opening, that it’s really become part of our dining room. The outside basically doubled our capacity, plus a little more.
So it’ll be interesting if we have to lose it.
IA: We have regular guests, some of whom have never sat inside the restaurant, and some of whom have never sat outside of the restaurant, which is strange. A lot of people like to bring their dogs outside. I have a baby, and my wife and I will always sit outside with the baby because it just feels less intrusive, somehow. There’s just a certain casual, fun vibe that happens outside that I think is a big part of what Victor has turned into. There are dogs, there are kids — it’s lively. That’s just become part of our thing.
What I love about outdoor dining is that there’s so much life happening in public. Even as a passerby, it’s fun. But then I think: in January? People are going to bundle up in parkas and go eat roast fish under a heat lamp just because?
IA: That’s the question we’ve been asking ourselves.
RA: We definitely talked a lot about whether or not we should put in the electricity and the heaters because it’s a gamble. You’re rolling the dice that this is still going to be what people want. I think there’s definitely going to be a good amount of people this year who still want that, who want to meet up with friends but don’t want to dine inside.
IA: We’re really banking on the longer transition periods between seasons that seem to happen now. In the total dead, cold, freezing part of winter, maybe not so much. But summer extends into fall now, and spring seems to have become a fairly long season, too, and so we have these long bouts of semi-mild weather. If it’s 50 or 60 degrees out, and we have some really nice heaters, we feel pretty confident that people are going to choose to sit out there. Once February rolls around, I don’t know if everybody’s going to be willing to put on all the layers and go sit outside with their winter hats again. But during these transition periods, I think people are still going to very much want to sit out there.
Not everyone, though — there’s a small but vocal group of New Yorkers who are extremely against these structures becoming permanent. Twenty-two of them just filed a lawsuit to try to stop it.
RA: That’s understandable. I mean, people like their parking spaces. They need to put some regulations on these — the city needs to make sure this structure is safe, and it’s not an eyesore. Some of them aren’t really built out of anything, four poles and some pallets that they found on the street. So I’m all for them regulating it a bit more, which I guess is what they’re trying to figure out now.
IA: We’re kind of shielded from the community-board stuff. In Park Slope proper, just a few blocks from us to the east, I know there’s been a lot of pushback against some of the structures. In the East Village, you’ve been getting it. But those are neighborhoods where it seems like there’s traditionally been a pretty contentious relationship between community boards and nightlife. There’s the parking spaces, yes, but mostly, the concerns are what they’ve always been: people outside, making noise, making messes, that kind of stuff. We haven’t really had any issues with that.
RA: There isn’t too much residential stuff going on over here.
What would it look like for the restaurant if you had to get rid of the veranda? The current outdoor-dining program phases out and … what happens?
IA: It depends on what it’s been replaced with. If we went back to the café-license days, then it means that we would have to spend a lot of money on that license, and then have some chairs on the sidewalk that we end up losing in the winter. Or it would mean that we try to find some other space. We would have to pivot to whatever the city is offering in place of these things. For the permanent program, they may keep these things around. But what’s it going to cost?
RA: They’re not going to keep it free. Free real estate in New York City?
IA: At some point, whether they take them away and go back to the café license, or they decide they’re going to charge for a permit, I imagine it’s going to become just tighter and more regulated, and it’s going to cost something. So we’re just going to have to figure out if that cost is worth it. Luckily, restaurants that have gone through this whole process will have a lot of data. We’ll be able to check our books and figure out exactly how much money we kind of made off of being able to have this outdoor structure, and then decide if the cost of whatever the permanent solution turns out to be is worth it.