If you were to compile a history of outdoor dining in New York City (and really, is there that much else to do?), you would begin with the arrival of Castle Gardens, the country’s first open-air beer hall, in Lower Manhattan in 1824.
Shooting ahead a half-century would find Charles Feltman introducing the hot dog to Coney Island; Feltman, a German immigrant, was so successful wrapping sausages in buns for seaside consumption, that he soon built an empire on Surf Avenue with restaurants that set out tables on shaded back patios and under open boardwalk arcades, something of an innovation.
Our timeline would land quickly enough at the unusual glory period of the present day. It is common to say that restaurants are essential to the city’s identity, but the pandemic has made it viscerally clear how much they remind us that we are among the living.
In the earliest and most terrifying days of the outbreak, mobile morgues lined a central stretch of Hicks Street in Brooklyn. Now, along those blocks, whether it is the middle of the day or 9 at night, there are people eating and drinking; there is pizza and gazpacho and lager and Champagne; there are all the new puppies on the laps of their owners — hope in the place of death and isolation. Is collective joy anarchic? Then New York is definitely an anarchist jurisdiction.
All of this — and most crucially, the ability of line cooks and waitresses and dishwashers to feed themselves and their families — is endangered by the city’s lagging response to creatively imagining outdoor dining as the weather gets colder.
Originally, the city intended to keep outdoor dining (on open streets with reduced parking) until the end of October. On Friday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the program would continue all year long. While this is a necessary and obvious first step to keeping restaurants solvent, it is entirely unclear how the city will guide them in the mission of dealing with falling temperatures and wind.
An entire industry vital to the city’s economy is essentially being held hostage by a lack of direction and appliances. Propane heat lamps, so popular in Los Angeles restaurants, are legal only for home use in New York, and it was not until this week, by which point it had already become chilly, that a bill brought forth in City Council sought to change this.
Until Friday, the use of propane heat lamps for commercial application was illegal in New York City. The mayor reversed that rule, but lamps will be permitted only on sidewalks not where streets are closed off. They are also hard to come by at the moment. “Like everything useful in this pandemic,” said Mark Levine, a city councilman who has been advocating for permanent outdoor dining, “they happen to be in short supply.”
The chef Alex Raj owns four acclaimed restaurants in Chelsea and Cobble Hill with her husband, Eder Montero. They have been on the hunt for heat lamps in anticipation of a ruling but have so far come up empty. “Eder and I have been chasing them — ‘Let’s go to Paterson, New Jersey, let’s go to Newburgh,’’’ she recounted. “We’ve been on the phone daily with people.” Given that local restaurant supply stores aren’t selling what isn’t yet legal, chefs have had to search Lowe’s and Home Depot, where they are competing with civilians with backyards. Getting heat lamps shipped from out-of-state suppliers is expensive; electric space heaters are legal, but they leave you with higher utility bills, lots of wires and the possibility of blown fuses.
Money from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program has largely run out, and this week a trade group reported that 9 out of 10 restaurants and bars in the city were unable to meet their full rent obligations in August.
Few people are eager to eat indoors at this point, and the restaurant owners I spoke with said it would hardly be worth their while to open at 25 percent capacity, which is the mandate when dining rooms will begin service again on Sept. 30. Those numbers might cover payroll, but certainly not rent. “Once you close, reopening is really hard,” Ms. Raj told me. “The prospect of having to buy inventory when you haven’t had revenue or cash flow for a long time is serious.”
It is hard to overstate the sense of impending doom in the restaurant business, even among those who have been and remain successful. “It really cannot go on like this,’’ Michael O’Keeffe, the owner of the River Café, which is now more than 40 years old, told me. “There will be thousands of people out of work and without homes.’’
On a recent Friday evening, I wrapped myself in a long sweater I hadn’t worn since March and headed to La Vara, one of Ms. Raj’s Brooklyn restaurants, to meet friends I hadn’t seen in just as long. We were all in wool, but I imagined us just as comfortable during November in lightweight techno-fibers or, more glamorously, the furry pullover Audrey Hepburn wears in “Charade’’ for lunch at a ski resort in the French Alps.
Ms. Raj was envisioning “yurts,” ideally conjured by local design students and produced in Brooklyn. A friend of hers in San Francisco, Shelley Lindgren of the restaurant A16, had done something between a yurt and a cabana — open tents hanging on a wood frame — which she admired.
Last winter, several bars in New York tried to bring some novelty to the nightlife scene by mounting fake plastic igloos on rooftops. Thinking about how he might keep his business going in colder weather, Alain Chevreux, owner of Cafe Du Soleil on the Upper West Side, bought 16 similar structures online in July. “If it is 50 degrees outside, it is 60 degrees in the bubble,” he told me. He was wise to act early. Many colleagues have called him since to report that they too are hard to come by.
Instead of leaving individual restaurant owners to figure these things out on their own, as if they were in a live-or-die episode of “Top Chef,” the city should lead a major effort to make outdoor dining in winter work for everybody. Anyone running such an initiative would draw from the urban-planning community, seek out landscape architects, fashion designers, makers, manufacturers, graphic designers, task rabbits and so on.
Short of a successful vaccine fully delivered before Halloween or another significant round of federal subsidies, creating a viable means of outdoor dining and promoting it is really the only way to prevent the restaurant industry from collapsing.
The specific solutions might come in the form of pop-up greenhouses, or room-service tables with built-in warmers that hotels, operating way under capacity, could rent out to restaurants. “There should be a brain trust formed really quickly that would lead to a blueprint for cheap modular systems with phenomenal lighting,” Susanna Sirefman, an architectural consultant who leads design competitions for the public and private sector, suggested.
A spokesman for the mayor’s office says that the city has a notion, not yet disclosed to anyone who needs to know, of how to keep people warm and streets safe. Will that be enough? “What will make people want to eat in their parkas in the dark? What will make these spaces vibrant?” Ms. Sirefman said. “All of this has to be done — and right away.”