For many of us, the novelty of cooking every single meal at home faded weeks – if not months – ago.
And while access to restaurant food in the United States, from garden-variety Thai to elevated steakhouse fare, has never been better (particularly in urban areas) it just wasn’t the same as going out to eat.
So when outdoor dining recently became an option as cities and states began to reopen, it was hard not to get excited. What restaurants were open? Would it be hard to get a reservation? Would we have to wear masks in between bites of burrata? Would we be able to use the indoor restroom or be forced to wait until we got home?
We had questions, but greater than our curiosities around the experience of dining out during a pandemic, was a real, genuine hunger.
First come, first serve
My husband and I had our first such outing in Buffalo, NY, which began serving diners on-site outside on June 8. With limited options available to us, we went to Cole’s, which is normally known for its raucous late-night crowd.
Though it was open, Cole’s decision to convert its parking lot into “patio” seating resulted in a brief, if slightly awkward, wait as we hovered around tables wrapping up their meal and were eventually told to just grab any available table. Overwhelmed but friendly servers wore masks as they rushed around taking drink orders and served up steak sandwiches.
We also wondered how our hometown of New York City would fare since sidewalk dining in most neighborhoods isn’t always an available option, and restaurants can’t conjure a backyard when there isn’t a backyard. And they also can’t manufacture a parking lot to accommodate two- and four-tops when no such parking lot exists.
But it turned out New York City had its own way of negotiating space.
Where would NYC be without innovation? What would it be without cars?
Stretches of city streets are showing what it could be like as restaurants are now free to block off two or three parking spaces in front of their storefronts for tables and chairs.
In one Brooklyn neighborhood, everything from the 24-hour diner to the cozy French bistro to the bar that serves snacks, are putting up charming wooden fences, installing umbrellas and strategically positioning plants to create outdoor dining rooms.
“I think there is opportunity for some restaurants when it comes to outdoor dining to try and increase revenue but cost-benefit must be carefully considered,” says Lilly W. Jan, a lecturer in food and beverage management at Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration.
One thing’s clear: Street food isn’t what it used to be.
The makeshift spaces inviting diners to sit and stay awhile are certainly one way of navigating the outdoor dining allowance, though establishments with pre-existing outdoor spaces may provide a more aesthetically appealing and more peaceful option.
Take Claro, for instance. Its lush backyard is bigger than the indoor dining room, and if it’s atmosphere you’re after, well, Claro has it in spades.
As does Barrio Kitchen, a lakeside Mexican restaurant with a large outdoor deck for dining in the Catskills. It was easy to remember prepandemic outdoor dining at Barrio Kitchen – the only major discernible difference was the masked and gloved servers.
The deck was not exactly jammed, but it didn’t feel like the coronavirus was a thing at all. Dishes were being shared among individual parties, glasses were glasses, plates were plates, cutlery was cutlery. When the bill came, it was presented as per usual, in a pleather check-holder – no QR codes or anything to reduce touch points. Our paranoid party did use lots of hand sanitizer and wiped down everything ourselves.
Meanwhile, over in Carroll Gardens, another Brooklyn neighborhood, East One Coffee Roasters, debuted outdoor dining for the first time.
The set up? Tables in the street, inches away from traffic.
But in spite of the odd, somewhat scary seating arrangement, the overall experience left us feeling as safe as can be in these times.
We used QR codes to see the menu, an effort to eliminate contact and reduce waste associated with throwaway paper menus.
And when the server wiped down our table, she asked us to pick up some of the items on the table so she could avoid touching them. The cutlery — metal, not disposable — and napkins came in sealed packs, which was a first for us in decades of dining out.
At Claro, menus were also absent, with the instruction to look at the website (on our phones) and then place the order with our server. This was straightforward enough when it came to making our selections for the four courses; it was less so when it came to choosing from the 100-plus mezcal list. In the end, rather than attempt to browse the extensive offerings and regional descriptions of the spirit on our tiny phones, we asked the server to choose a flight for us.
Taniesha’s picks were great, but this route is not recommended for people who like to know the cost of things before committing. And, yes, we could have asked, but it was such a joy to be out, conversing with a knowledgeable server about mezcal varieties and the level of smokiness imparted by such and such a type that it slipped our minds.
When the bill came, or more accurately, when the hand-held credit card machine was presented to us, we reminded ourselves that quality comes at a certain cost.
Fortunately, the portions, surprising for a tasting menu, were huge. Chef/Owner TJ Steele says they want to provide value to the guests. The tasting menu, Steele says, is a way to control people’s experience and ensure it’s a good one.
He also says with the limited capacity at play, the restaurant couldn’t afford to have someone come and drink a margarita and camp out.
At Terre, a neighborhood pasta and wine spot in Park Slope, Brooklyn, changes — aside from the brand new outdoor option – appeared minimal, though we did appreciate the thorough cleaning of the high chair.
We noticed the staff had been dramatically reduced. There was only one server for the handful of tables in the backyard space.
Service wasn’t speedy as a result, and it took a little longer to get drinks and have our order taken, but we didn’t mind. It was just so refreshing to be eating out after so many months stuck at home.
The owner, Daniele Tassi, however, expressed some concern with being short-staffed, particularly when phase three allows for 50% capacity inside. Although this has typically been introduced about a week after outdoor dining resumed in cities around the country, New York City is delaying this option.
Perhaps Terre will hire and train new team members before long.
A server-in-training was what we encountered at Social Bird in Lafayette, CA, where wetnaps were distributed with abandon.
Overall, things at Social Bird were quite orderly: Obvious signage about distancing, X’s on the ground to demonstrate actual distance in case the past few months had left any question, servers in masks and gloves.
Menus were offered, but they were disposable and even stated this fact on the menu itself. Also printed on the menu: Instructions to wear your mask when moving about the restaurant.
In spite of the rules and regulations, there was another consistency: Joy. At Terre, patrons and the staff alike were so happy to be there. At Barrio Kitchen, sangria delivered by a jocular and effervescent masked server helped make everything feel normal. Social Bird’s vibe was familial – though there wasn’t much interaction among the distanced parties. And the server as Cole’s thanked us for joining them.
This joyful energy may explain why Terre’s Tassi told us the hardest part of all of this is forcing people to social distance. It can be tricky with some parties, he says.
As for the loo? Well, let’s just say we didn’t have to hold it — but we did have to wear a mask.