Outdoor dining is becoming the new normal as New York City enters phase 2 of reopening. But in residential areas like Sunnyside, Queens, restaurants are resuming business in ways that don’t necessarily involve putting out tables on a sidewalk or roadway.
Quaint, a New American bistro that’s been a neighborhood favorite since 2006, is opening its back garden starting tomorrow. There will be five tables placed six feet part from each other, with the maximum capacity of 16 guests at a time. Servers will be wearing masks, silverware will be rolled up and all staff has to be screened when they come into work.
In addition, the restaurant will ask customers if they want to leave their information for contact tracing purposes. If they do, Quaint can then report it to the city if they find out a guest is infected.
Tim Chen, owner of Quaint, said he had considered street dining but then realized staff would be out of work on rainy days. Since the lockdown began, Quaint has remained open for takeout and started to offer delivery in late May.
Sunnyside is a quiet neighborhood with many apartment buildings and houses. There are a few scenic but narrow streets here and there but generally the curb is reserved for pedestrians only. While a few bars and pubs like The Alcove or PJ Horgan’s had managed to arrange street seating even before the pandemic, many others have not followed suit.
Take, for example, I am Thai, a popular spot for authentic Thai dishes with an extensive vegan menu. Tucked away in a corner on 43rd Avenue, it started out as a takeout place in 2007. Only five or six years ago did owner Bank decide to repurpose the indoor space for dine-in customers.
Dealing with the aftermath of coronavirus, the restaurant is looking to reverse back to its original setting. For Bank, it’s not just about the added requirements that the restaurant has to comply with if they were to resume indoor dining, it’s more about the comfort level of his employees. “I asked them directly like, ‘How comfortable are you?’ and they were hesitating, they said they weren’t comfortable here,” he said. His employees told him that even with more safety measures in place, they would still have to have close contact with customers, and it would be difficult to know how healthy they are.
Moreover, Bank is also concerned about whether the street his restaurant is on is suited for outdoor dining. “You see the city hasn’t been cleaning the street for the past three and a half months, almost four months now. Our front door glass is always dusty,” he said. “I don’t see how we’re gonna make people eat outside with those dusts.”
Without worrying about regular dine-in again at least till the rest of the year, Bank said he’s focused on finding fresher, better ingredients for the menu. The restaurant also manages its own online ordering system without the help of any apps like Grubhub or Seamless to avoid the steep service fees, which usually take up 25 to 30 percent of the sales. “I’d rather use that 30 percent to buy a better product for the customers and put more into the portion,” he said.
A couple blocks over from I am Thai, on Skillman Avenue, the Himalayan and New American restaurant Dawa’s is also opting out of the street dining trend. Dawa’s reopened for takeout only on May 20 and since then, chef and owner Dawa Bhuti has been redesigning the indoor dining area to comply with safety regulations, while optimizing its usage.
Bhuti revamped the indoor space to set aside a small area where she can sell essential grocery items like local honey, salt and bread. She has also incorporated display tables for her artist friend to showcase his pottery. “I wanted to make the space for other artists,” Bhuti said. “Because I thought like, “Why don’t I share my platform with others whose livelihood was affected because of the pandemic and lockdown?” To accommodate for dine-in, there’s a bench against the wall and tables will be added as guests come in or when more guests are allowed.
While getting ready to reopen for dine-in during phase 3 or 4, Bhuti is grateful that she still sees her regulars. “They’re very positive, understanding and generous,” she said. “It makes me feel good and I can always look forward to going to work.”