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“If you want to seed a place with activity,” the noted urbanist William H. Whyte once observed, “the first thing to do is put out food.” That’s what New York did this past summer. As temperatures rose and infection rates flattened, the city’s Department of Transportation (not previously associated with the food business) gave restaurants permission to serve diners in, of all places, parking spots.
At first, the curbside “dining rooms” were pretty makeshift: corrals of raw lumber enclosing some hastily assembled tables and chairs, looking like bake-sale booths at street fairs. The first outdoor patrons of places like my local old-school diner sat like tentative test subjects, blinking in the sun, looking a bit dazed after months of quarantine.
But people quickly acclimated and the spaces began to look less like construction sites. The diner added umbrellas. The quirky fish place had a three-piece jazz combo on the sidewalk. The Thai restaurants put up signs advertising Singha beer and, for a moment, in the sweltering humidity of July, you could imagine you were at some Bangkok street market.
One evening, my wife and daughter and I headed to Marea, Michael White’s Michelin-starred Midtown temple of Italian seafood, where 15 tables were newly arrayed on the sidewalk along Central Park South, underneath existing construction scaffolding that had been gaily bedecked with blue and white hydrangeas made from fabric. A quick scan of a displayed QR code served up the menu, and we relayed our choices (sweet-corn-filled ravioli, gnocchetti with ruby red shrimp) to our masked and well-distanced server.
What we lost in being deprived of Marea’s elegant interiors, we gained with views of Central Park and front-row seats to the theater that is New York. Such was the novelty of it all that passersby, momentarily confused, would hesitate, thinking they were encroaching upon our space, sometimes heading to the curb to skirt our tables. As we nibbled on burrata, a woman with oversized sunglasses and a floral pantsuit sidled up to the maître d’. Was she some reclusive heiress out for an Aperol Spritz and cold lobster salad? No, she was looking for the bus stop, directly across from our table.
A few evenings later, chef Missy Robbins stopped by to chat at our table at Lilia, her beloved Italian spot in a former auto body shop in Brooklyn. Robbins’s transition outside hadn’t been without incident. A torrential downpour had canceled reopening night, and an attempt to add a few more tables had been abandoned after one day. “Even though they were six feet apart, they were too close,” she said. “It’s not worth it if people aren’t feeling good while they’re here.” And that’s the thing. It did feel good. New York dining can be noisy and crowded, and that can be great; but it can also be great to sit outside on a summer evening. More than dining, it feels like symbolically reconnecting with a place you once loved. As I sat, seeing people enjoy themselves once again, a question kept entering my mind: Why didn’t we do this sooner?
Take It Outside
Five NYC reservations to make, rain or shine.
MAREA Michael White’s Italian eatery just off Columbus Circle has turned scaffolding into a lush garden for sidewalk diners feasting on grilled octopus and oysters.
SUSHI AMANE One of the few places for alfresco omakase, the Michelin one-star Midtown spot has moved its sushi counter outside for pared-down versions of its tasting menu.
LILIA The Williamsburg restaurant’s dining room now spills out onto the street, but tables are still booked weeks in advance.
DANIEL Daniel Boulud’s flagship has mastered outdoor elegance with a sidewalk “terrace” decked in white linens and a weekly-changing three-course menu.
OLMSTED Book far in advance for one of the dozen tables at this Brooklyn hot spot, where farm-fresh dishes like tonkatsu spareribs and carrot kathi rolls are served on the garden patio. olmstednyc.com