Outdoor Dining Offers Fresh Air and Fantasy to a City That Needs Both


A new design genre was born last month when New York City began allowing restaurants, which had been closed for on-premises dining since March, to take over miles of sidewalks and streets for outdoor seating. Traditionally, the city’s sidewalk cafes tended to be dull to look at, crowded rows of tables hemmed in by plain metal railings. The new ones are more expressive. Governed by two emergency programs meant to let restaurants earn some money until indoor dining can resume, these structures follow a set of rules for keeping the public safe from the coronavirus and, when the seating is placed in parking spaces, from passing cars. Within and around these rules, however, creativity blossomed.

A few restaurateurs consulted with the Rockwell Group, Pink Sparrow and other design firms that have dreamed up modular, prefabricated platforms and barriers. Nearly everybody else winged it. Working quickly with small budgets and the awareness that anything they build now will probably have to be torn down in September or October, when the programs end, restaurateurs have built little public gardens to welcome New Yorkers back from their long sequestrations.

These oases, surrounded by plants and shaded by wide umbrellas, have temporarily transformed the city. Owners in some neighborhoods, like Chinatown in Manhattan and the Mexican strip in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, have been unable to take advantage of the programs so far. But in many others, every block or so holds out the possibility of a quick getaway to a faraway beach or an elegant urban glade. The promise of these outdoor cafes is a few hours of relief from our well-founded fears.

Like most of the United States-Canadian border, the line between Little Italy and NoLIta is not clearly marked. But you know you’re in NoLIta the minute you see the planter boxes surrounding the Mulberry Street seating area for Ruby’s Café. They’re painted millennial pink. The color scheme is just one of the ways Ruby’s has the maximized the limited design possibilities of a temporary structure that sits on a gray platform built over a patch of New York City asphalt. The chairs are mod bent-plywood numbers, strings of lights suggest a garden and the sun is kept out by a flax-colored awning. A speaker pointed at the sidewalk floats a chill, party soundtrack over the tables, but clear plastic partitions between the tables help keep the scene from evolving into a socially undistanced dance party.

Until recently, it might have been possible to walk past the corner of Seventh Avenue and Perry Street without noticing Baby Brasa. This is no longer the case. The restaurant took over a long stretch of the avenue on the far side of the bike lane, furnishing it with chairs, umbrellas, palm trees and two inflatable pink flamingoes the size of Jacuzzis. Eduardo Trejo, a manager, said he had ordered the birds from Amazon to give the street dining zone a little “Miami style.” They also complement the restaurant’s extremely popular Pink Flamingo cocktail, “a rosé-y slushie” that takeout customers can buy in a clear plastic pouch that looks like an I.V. bag. One of the flamingoes is meant to be a pool float. The other was designed as a splash pool. Baby Brasa has not filled it with water, but that has not kept customers from sitting inside the flamingo, cocktails in hand. By the end of last weekend, a customer had accidentally punctured its head. The rest of the animal remained inflated, though. “It’s another V.I.P. table,” Mr. Trejo said.

At Evelina, the managing partner, Giuseppe di Francisci, wanted to replicate the feeling of a town in Italy, where he grew up. So he went to the flower district in Manhattan and came back with planters full of tall bamboo spires that tower over the tops of the Peroni umbrellas he uses to shade the tables. Closer to the building are boxes planted with peppers and other foods. “You are surrounded by nature,” Mr. di Francisci said. “You don’t think you are in the street.”

Customers have told Dianna Loiselle that the cafe she built in the street in front of her restaurant, Telly’s Taverna, reminds them of Greece. That may be due in part to Telly’s Greek menu, or to the Greek flag that flies above the tables, next to the American flag. Or it may be that her seating area looks as if it is there for the long haul. “I didn’t want to have something flimsy because a lot of people drive fast down this street,” Ms. Loiselle said. On June 22, the first day the rules that expanded outdoor dining went into effect, she went to a garden store in Nassau County for potted palms, New Guinea impatiens, purple coleus and artificial turf. Tables, chairs and umbrellas came from Crate & Barrel, and the sturdy planter boxes were commissioned from a contractor. She likes the outcome so much that she hopes the city will consider making in-street dining areas permanent. “They said they were only going to leave these until Labor Day,” she said “I feel they should have them always.”

Floratorium, a florist that specializes in environmental installations, was hired to build street-dining areas for the three locations of the French cafe Maman. Carlos Franqui, who owns Floratorium, said he had walled the tables off with birch-trunk fences to give them a rustic feel that he describes as “a barricade that doesn’t look like a barricade.” The inspiration was rustic. “If you were in the country and needed to build a fence, you wouldn’t go to Home Depot,” Mr. Franqui said. “You’d call your neighbor and see if he had any logs you could use.” Behind the fence, which stands on custom-welded iron anchors, are wicker baskets and galvanized buckets filled with rosemary, mint, lavender and other herbs.

The two-space parking lot in front of SGD Tofu House suddenly became a major advantage when the city allowed outdoor seating without formal sidewalk cafe permits. Jeff Kim, the owner, said the pavilion he commissioned from a local contractor was inspired by the forest. The plastic barriers, used to control traffic and pedestrians around construction sites, were orange when he bought them. He painted them the color of tree trunks. A local contractor built the wall and partitions on the right and painted them a lighter shade of brown. Greenery is supplied by potted ivy and ferns hanging on the wall, along with 13 arbor vitae trees. Two industrial fans and a pinhole stream of water shooting from a garden hose cool this woodland glade; Mr. Kim thinks the wet pavement makes the area more appealing. “People don’t like eating outside because of dust on the ground,” he said.

Chichi Silva and Fernando Lopez needed a party. They are managing partners of Mansion Supper Club, a restaurant that opened last New Year’s Eve and was in business for just over two months before the pandemic shut it down. When outdoor dining was allowed, they looked at a large, graffiti-covered outdoor area where they kept trash and saw — a party. A beach party, to be precise. They brushed coral-pink and aquamarine paint over the graffiti on an exterior wall, giving it the look of the “Miami Vice” wardrobe closet, and “the rest came from that,” Mr. Lopez said. The rest: palm trees, picnic tables, umbrellas that look like the roof of a tropical palapa, bamboo mats to obscure the row of brick houses next door. They painted the pavement the color of sand. Finally they built a lifeguard chair, painted it coral and aqua, and stationed it at the entrance where everybody on Broadway can see it.

Although restaurants are required to surround in-street dining areas with substantial barriers that are at least 18 inches thick and marked with reflectors, a few places are taking extra precautions. The Blue Bay Restaurant rented concrete Jersey barriers, painted white and safety orange, to protect its customers from the traffic lanes. “It’s safer,” Elizabeth Katechis, one of the owners, said. The barriers were delivered by a construction firm, which will haul them away again when the city’s street-dining program ends in September.

Diagrams of model seating areas on the Department of Transportation’s website show planter boxes separating tables from the traffic lanes. Custom-built planter boxes are expensive, though. Andy Hawkins, the owner of Sea Witch, found a cheaper way to enclose the tables he’s set out on Fifth Avenue just north of Green-Wood Cemetery: 18-inch-thick stacks of cinder blocks. Mr. Hawkins covered the area with a green, 20-foot-long carport canopy he purchased on Amazon. Striped reflective poles come from a nearby safety-equipment store. Mr. Hawkins believes the cinder blocks satisfy the city’s requirement for enclosures, but he has not been able to confirm this. “The D.O.T. is really hard to speak with,” he said. The bunker ambience of the street enclosure is a contrast with Sea Witch’s other outdoor seating area, a tidy rock garden out back with tufts of irises and a small turtle pond.

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