Why some COVID-era NYC outdoor dining sheds deserve to stay
Long since the time when COVID-19 killed 800 New York City residents in a day, monuments to the pandemic’s hellish early months stand proudly, or stubbornly, on sidewalks and in streets.
These enclosed outdoor dining sheds are now mostly dilapidated eyesores.
But a precious few reflect not only the desperation of the time, when every restaurant struggled to survive, but also the Big Apple’s fabled resilience and creative spirit in the face of catastrophe.
Which is why the charming alfresco setups at Fresco by Scotto, Indochine and Fairfax Cafe, among others, deserve a pass from upcoming city rules that will likely wipe out the handful of remaining beauties — along with those thousands of shanty-town shacks.
If our elected leaders have any sense of style or appreciation for history, they’ll let the Landmarks Preservation Commission choose the ones to be grandfathered for future generations to enjoy.
Another option: tap the Regional Plan Association’s Alfresco NYC Coalition, which in 2021 cited several outdoor sheds in all five boroughs for their spirited designs.
Among them was Kokomo at 65 Kent Avenue in Brooklyn for “transporting you to the Caribbean.”
All of the 13,000-odd enclosed sheds, wonderful and woeful, are in a twilight phase since the City Council began weighing their future last year.
The Council and the mayor’s office are negotiating in secrecy, but they’re expected to impose uniform design guidelines — if they don’t outlaw enclosed sheds entirely.
Most so-called “streeteries” long ago outlived their usefulness. Many made of plywood are visibly rotting.
But nobody really knows what the city will do.
For example, will they be allowed year-round or only in summer?
One loud, unconfirmed rumor is that future structures may not use wood — which is what most sheds are made from
New Yorkers love and loathe outdoor eating sheds for multiple reasons.
Auto-haters want them all to stand forever, no matter how ugly, because they take away parking spaces.
NIMBY types want them leveled to eliminate noise, vermin and crime.
But it’s hard to find a reason to complain where owners spent small fortunes to keep their places afloat with inventive, comfortable and smartly-crafted enclosed cabins.
Fresco by Scotto’s fanciful evocation of subtropical Capri at 34 E. 52nd St. went up in June 2021.
Lemon trees, colorful lights and nighttime music drew customers when East Midtown was a ghost town.
Even when indoor dining resumed at 25 percent capacity in February 2021, owners Elaina and Rosanna Scotto were ready to give up.
“There was “NOBODY here,” Rosanna recalled.
“My sister and I were like, ‘We have only one last opportunity to save the restaurant.’ We hired an event planner, Lawrence Scott. We told him, let’s make it a party. Like Italy without getting on a plane.”
The $150,000 installation cost and monthly upkeep expenses were dear, but they kept Fresco from going under.
More than two years later, Freco’s 100 outdoor seats remain full even though few customers any longer fear indoor dining.
The Fresco frenzy brought life back to a sleepy block. Mitch Rudin, the CEO of commercial real estate brokerage Savills, made the alfresco Fresco his regular lunch spot and reeled in everyone he could to join him.
“I always booked a table for four with an empty seat,” Rudin said, and would sometimes “literally flag people down in the street to join us.”
Indochine, the perpetually popular French-Vietnamese celebrity-magnet at 430 Lafayette St., was reeling as well when the state shut down indoor dining for a second time in December 2020.
It struggled to lure customers even when it reopened, also at low capacity, in March 2021.
So it rolled the dice on an enclosed sidewalk simulation of Indochine’s romantic interior.
Co-owner and manager Jean-Marc Houmard said the $80,000 buildout with southeast Asian plants, banana-leaf wallpaper and striped-fabric cushions was an immediate hit.
“I tried to bring what people enjoyed about the dining room but with a more summery feel,” he said.
Designer CW Stockwell had just come up with fabric whose motif featured the same banana leaves as the [indoor] wallpaper,” Houmard recalled. “Most importantly, I made sure the lighting was as moody and flattering as it is inside.”
For nearby resident Jade Buguelin, co-founder of skin-care products brand 4amskin, Indochine’s cabin is not about safety, but the scene.
“It has some of the best people-watching,” she said of the sidewalk’s colorful passing parade.
Outdoor sheds are “one of the few upsides of the pandemic,” she continued. “It would be a great harm to lose them.”
The clean-lined, metal-and-plexiglass street cabin in front of Donohue’s Steak House at 845 Lexington Ave. was a lifeline, not only to owner Maureen Donohue-Peters, but also to locals for whom the 1950-vintage restaurant was a second home.
“If I didn’t have outdoor seating I would have gone out of business,” Donohue-Peters said.
Celebrity customers such as Jimmy Fallon decamped to the Hamptons and elsewhere, but Donohue’s was sorely missed by many without the resources to flee.
Donohue-Peters’ $40,000 investment on 14 tables, each with its own heater, drew back locals such as Trudy Lampert, a customer of 40 years who lives across the street.
Like many of us, Lampert was starved for social contact during the “six feet of separation” days.
“I was comfortable eating out there,” she said. A tennis fan, Lampert had long enjoyed watching matches on the television over Donohe’s front bar, which was no longer accessible.
There was no outdoor TV, but, “Maureen set up her computer in the shed and I could watch it on the computer,” she said gratefully.
Tribeca’s film-star residents abandoned the area during lockdowns, but there were still plenty of locals left behind who craved the regional Indian cuisine at massive Tamarind Tribeca at 99 Hudson St.
Owner Avtar Walia knew that many others were putting up rickety, makeshift cabins. “But I said, I’m going to take this to a different level.”
He also noticed “people putting in all kinds of things like cabanas in front of Restaurant Daniel.” (Those are long gone.)
Walia spent $135,000 to set up a complex of outdoor rooms on the restaurant’s Hudson and Franklin Street sides.
Walia struggled with ever-changing regulations and disruptive street excavations for utilities work. But his 120 “outdoor” seats are nearly as popular as Tamarind’s 175 spots indoors.
“Some people are still concerned about COVID, especially elderly people,” Walia said. The little outdoor rooms are cozily decorated and softened with tablecloths to give a taste of the indoor room’s elegance.
Italian favorite Don Angie at 103 Greenwich Ave., tapped GRT Architects in late 2020 to devise outdoor cabins with the same mood as the dining room.
Velvet curtains keep things private. The cabins’ red glow after dark beckoned New Yorkers eager to escape the pandemic’s grip in the near-desolate West Village.
Famously eye-catching, canvas-tent “yurts” stand in front of Gabriel Stulman’s Fairfax Cafe at 234 West Fourth Street.
Despite seating only a handful of customers, they epitomized the restaurant world’s heart-lifting effort to bring cheer to a shattered city.
Their Arabian Nights flair earned them the No. 1 spot in a New York Post poll of favorite outdoor venues in December 2020.
Stulman believes outdoor structures should be kept, “not as a symbol of the city’s resiliency, but because they represent a brilliant re-imagining of our streets. We should keep them because restaurants need these extra seats to better thrive in the current [economic] climate.”
Like most everyone on all sides of the debate, Stulman believes that the sooner the new rules are announced, the better
He blames the proliferation of so many poorly designed and un-maintained sheds on confusion over whether or not outdoor structures would be allowed permanently and what the rules around their long-term maintenance would be.
“Many structures that weren’t designed to last continue to hang on by threads due to operators’ uncertainty to invest limited capital” without knowing whether it would pay off, Stulman said.
New York City Hospitality Alliance executive director Andrew Rigie echoed the urgent need to clear the air.
“It’s past time to move on from the temporary emergency program and memorialize it with a permanent standardized system that showcases the best of sidewalk cafés and streeteries,” he said.
Kate Slevin, executive vice-president of the Regional Plan Association also emphasized the “importance of getting a permanent program in place. It can retain some of the elements that make outdoor dining reflective of neighborhoods and good design.”
But beware the politicians. Too much tinkering could sweep away the gems along with the rubble. What happened at two-Michelin-star Gabriel Kreuther on West 42nd Street is a warning.
A lovely sidewalk “village” evoked the restaurant’s Alsatian inspirations. But while an alphabet soup of city agencies winked at crumbling and rat-infested sheds elsewhere, their ever-changing and contradictory diktats proved too much for Gabriel Kreuther.
It took the installation down last year when the harassment became too much.
We mustn’t let that happen to the surviving sheds that not only fed us, but inspired New Yorkers during the pandemic’s worst days.
Politicians and bureaucrats be advised: the people are watching what you do next.