Thursday, October 22, 2020
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The Uncertain Promises of Indoor Dining in New York City

The Uncertain Promises of Indoor Dining in New York City
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A thousand years ago, on March 11th of this year, I went with a friend to Wu’s Wonton King, a Chinatown gem that since its opening, in 2016, has become famous for, somehow, everything: the glorious array of dim sum, the exquisitely tender barbecued meats, the fishes, eels, and crabs plucked live from tanks in the windows, à la minute. Normally, when I visit Wu’s, it’s with a strategically large group so that we can order all of the above and more, and then bring home whatever our groaning insides can’t fit. On this particular day, I was with just one other person, and we split an uncharacteristically austere order of steamed pork buns and a bowl of noodle soup. We were the only people in the restaurant, which could have been partly attributable to our timing—it was a Wednesday morning, too late to be breakfast but too early to count as an early lunch—but almost certainly also had to do with the encroaching coronavirus pandemic, which was just beginning to make itself known in New York.

By now, it’s hard to recall that brief window of time in New York in early March, between our unfettered pre-pandemic life and the start of public shutdowns and self-quarantining, which we have now been enduring for nearly seven months. Venues in Chinatown had been among the first to experience a decline in business, fuelled by racist fears of the virus, which was first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan. But by the time Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a mandated closure of all bars and restaurants—which, after Governor Andrew Cuomo accelerated the original timeline, took effect on March 16th—the entire city was already slowing down, an anti-crescendo of public activity. After my meal at Wu’s, I hugged my friend goodbye and then spent hours walking eerily empty streets: from the Lower East Side to the West Village and the High Line, which was nearly void of tourists; from there to a desolate Times Square, where a YouTuber in a hazmat suit was waiting for pedestrians to interview on camera. At one point, I dipped into the vast McDonald’s on Forty-second Street and Broadway to use the ladies’ room. It was the last time I would enter a restaurant for nearly seven months.

I finally broke this streak last week, at Randazzo’s Clam Bar, the venerable seafood joint in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, the day after indoor dining in New York City was allowed to resume at twenty-five-per-cent capacity. To the side of Randazzo’s, the restaurant’s outdoor seating area was full of people slurping clams and beer and gazing across traffic-clogged Emmons Avenue at the empty fishing-boat slips and the narrow, glittering bay. Outdoor dining in New York, which resumed in late June, has been a revelation: the constructed patios that now fill parking lanes throughout the boroughs make the streets narrower, giving more space to people and less to cars, creating a village-square atmosphere, a gently European vibe. I’ve sat at Randazzo’s outdoor tables a few times in recent months, but this time I headed for the restaurant’s glass front door, which was papered with flyers reminding diners to wear masks. Just before the threshold, I paused and found myself mustering up the sort of deep-breath courage usually reserved for a jump off the high-dive platform or a declaration of love: You can do this. Just open the door.

The resumption of indoor dining is a vexing milestone on New York City’s jagged path to recovery. Between February and August, an estimated forty-five per cent of the city’s restaurant workers—some hundred and forty thousand people—lost their jobs; delivery services, a lifeline for businesses now trying to make ends meet on takeout orders, have bit into already precarious profit margins with predatory glee. Early in the pandemic, Eater started keeping a running list of establishments that had permanently closed—now numbering in the hundreds—and I’ve found myself checking it daily, compulsively refreshing the page. Lucky Strike, Soho’s cool-as-hell French bistro, was one of the first to go; the East Village lost an icon, the egg-cream emporium Gem Spa, in May, and another, the Ukrainian restaurant Odessa, two months later; takeout orders of ropa vieja and fried rice weren’t enough to protect La Caridad 78, the grimy and beautiful Cuban-Chinese king of the Upper West Side, which announced its closure at the end of July. The casualties have not been limited to independent businesses: that midtown McDonald’s in which I availed myself of the facilities—a four-story, seventeen-thousand-and-five-hundred-square-foot temple to special sauce, with a Broadway-style marquee covered in thousands of flickering light bulbs—closed forever in June. At the time, a McDonald’s spokesperson claimed that it was unrelated to COVID-19. Sure.

According to New York City’s original reopening timeline, which reintroduced indoor dining in July—on a delay from the rest of the state—by now we might have been at fifty-per-cent capacity, if not seventy-five. But that plan was spiked a week before it was intended to go into place, in response to the upswing in COVID-19 cases elsewhere in the country. The city loosened its famously rigid outdoor dining permitting, allowing virtually all restaurants to set up ersatz dining rooms on sidewalks and in parking lanes, and last month the City Council voted to allow restaurants to add a ten-per-cent surcharge to customers’ bills, a clever bit of consumer psychology that allows restaurants to boost revenue without raising the prices on their menus. But, as the chef Alex Stupak pointed out to me recently, the surcharge, which is optional, puts restaurants in an awkward position. “All the restaurateurs are looking at each other being, like, ‘I don’t know. Are you doing it?’ ” Stupak told me. “We could use the money, but, at the same time, if you take the cost of food and drink, plus surcharge, plus tip, then plus tax, you’re talking about a thirty-nine-per-cent fee collectively on top of the bill. How are people going to respond to that?”

Stupak is the owner of Manhattan’s four Empellón restaurants. Two of them, taquerias in the East and West Villages, have stayed open to surprisingly booming takeout and outdoor business (an outcome he attributes to their position in residential neighborhoods, and to the pandemic-proof allure of tacos and margaritas) and reopened for indoor dining on September 30th. Since the very start of the city’s reopening, Stupak told me, every policy has come in two waves: implementation and then amendment. “First, they said we can sell alcohol to go, then three weeks later every street turned into Bourbon Street, and the governor puts out new rules,” he explained. “With outdoor dining, everyone built their setups, and then three weeks later they said, “Whoa, it has to be eight feet off a crosswalk, fifteen feet off of a fire hydrant; you cannot build it anywhere in a road where there’s a bus station.’ ” Stupak’s restaurants already had the required ultra-fine filters in their H.V.A.C. system; he’s bought smiley-face gold-star stickers to put on the hands of customers who’ve had their temperatures taken, and designed and hung more rules-and-regulations signage than he has ever seen before in his career. “But we’re also trying to play Nostradamus,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out all the other indoor-dining rules that they haven’t thought of yet, that they’re going to think of three weeks from now.”

Nicole Ponseca, the owner of the East Village’s marvellous Filipino restaurant Jeepney, told me that she was not planning to resume indoor dining. It was a “painful and easy decision, simultaneously,” she said. Unlike Stupak, Ponseca doesn’t already have an H.V.A.C. system that meets new government requirements; she told me that upgrading might cost her about two thousand dollars, but without a reliable flow of customers, it’s not an investment that makes sense. (Fifty blocks and several tax brackets away, inside the walls of Le Bernardin—a plutocrat canteen where dinner and an insouciant little Burgundy or two can easily kick the bill above a thousand dollars a head—returning diners now breathe air that, the journalist Gary He reports in his pandemic-fine-dining newsletter Astrolabe, circulates through the same filtration system that “has been installed at the White House, Google’s headquarters, and Harvard University.”) Between sidewalk seating and the back garden, she has sixty outdoor seats, close to her usual indoor capacity. “But it wouldn’t have mattered if I had a hundred more seats, because the volume is just not there like it was,” she said. “My business was based on tourism, large-party dining, and Tinder dates,” she said, “and COVID took away all three.”

I have a reliable order at Randazzo’s: chowder, steamers, baked clams, fried calamari with “regular sauce,” and a triumphant lobster fra diavolo—though, as with my go-to’s at Wu’s Wonton King, such a feast requires a table full of friends. When I slipped in the door last week, I was unaccompanied. It was midday, and, despite the crowd outside, the interior of the restaurant was nearly empty. The long counter, normally cluttered with bar chairs, was now cleared of all but three. The ones at either end were occupied by large, T-shirted men eating soup; I sat at the one in the middle. I declined a menu and ordered a highly abbreviated version of my usual: baked clams and a Coke. A muted flat-screen TV was showing the Reds game, Teena Marie crooned “Lovergirl” over the sound system, and the skeleton crew of masked waitresses and busboys passed in and out to pick up food for the outdoor tables. When the plate of littlenecks landed in front of me, golden hills of butter and breadcrumbs swimming in a briny sea, I tugged my mask under my chin and began to eat.

Just a few days later, Bill de Blasio announced that, owing to a troubling rise in infection rates in a handful of New York City neighborhoods, certain areas in Brooklyn and Queens would be returning to earlier anti-COVID-19 measures; Governor Cuomo (who can never resist a jurisdictional flex on the Mayor) said the next day that the matter would be handled by the state. Large portions of Brooklyn and Queens are now considered hotspots and subject to restrictions of varying intensities—in the red zones, areas where COVID-19 numbers are rising most precipitously, both indoor and outdoor dining has been suspended. Randazzo’s is located in a yellow zone, where restaurant service has not been affected, but it’s just a few blocks south of where the map becomes orange—no indoor dining. If the worst happens, and the red zone spreads, “we’d have to resort to takeout and delivery like everyone else,” Michael Geraci, a member of the Randazzo family, told me over the phone. “We were able to get through that the first time, and hopefully if they do restrict everybody again it doesn’t last as long as the first time. But we don’t know. Just when you’re starting to get going, and you feel a little bit of momentum, and you’re excited for the promise of fifty-per-cent capacity—it’s frustrating, it really is.”

It’s getting tiresome to keep reminding ourselves that it didn’t have to be this way. “I think, as a first-world country, America has dropped the ball,” the New Orleans chef Nina Compton told me earlier this year. “You have European countries where people are getting paid seventy-five per cent of their salaries, businesses who have received rent abatement, and those things have kept people alive. And we haven’t gotten a single break.” Many would-be diners fear that going to restaurants is an un-worthwhile ethical compromise, one that potentially imperils their own health and that of the workers who make sit-down restaurant meals happen—and who often have little job security and no health insurance. Even the most meticulously hygienic workplace can’t be insulated against asymptomatic carriers of the virus, or the occasional unruly customer. (Stupak told me that, to protect his staff, he’s started closing his restaurants earlier in the evening: “Chances are, if someone’s going to be a dickhead about wearing a mask, that’s going to happen more at midnight, when they’re drunk, than at 7 P.M.,” he said.) Servers, line cooks, and other restaurant workers face an impossible dilemma: protect their incomes or protect their health.

Even now, after seven months, the nation’s half million restaurants (and the eleven million people they employ) are still fighting for government support on par with that of, say, airlines or cruise operators. Last week, chefs and restaurateurs cheered the passage in the House of Representatives of the HEROES Act, a $2.2 trillion coronavirus Hail Mary that reinstates a weekly six-hundred-dollar unemployment supplement that lapsed at the end of July, and also includes a hundred-and-twenty-billion-dollar grant program earmarked for restaurant recovery. But the bill, spearheaded by Democrats, is unlikely to make any headway in the Republican-controlled Senate, and President Trump abruptly announced, on Tuesday, that he would be suspending any further negotiation of COVID-19 relief until after Election Day. Absent any meaningful federal support, the work of propping up devastated industries (and the people they employ) falls to the states and cities; in New York, this overwhelmingly takes the form of easing the paths of commerce, rather than any sort of direct aid. The reopening timeline, the COVID-19 surcharge—even the free sandbags the city recently offered to restaurants, to help ballast their outdoor dining structures—all, in the end, place the burden of financial support on individuals, and individual transactions.

This grinding moral calculus leaves us with a fallacious sense of personal responsibility and misplaced blame. In recent months, I’ve seen chefs and restaurateurs lash out on social media at those whom they deem insufficiently supportive of the industry’s return. Those declining to eat in restaurants during the pandemic, they argue, are complicit in the economic suffering of their businesses and employees. (The crisis is unimaginably severe, and the stress is nearly unbearable, but such a position seems rooted more in existential terror than in logic.) There are, of course, ways to be supportive without prioritizing capital over safety: early in the pandemic, when the mass extinction of small businesses was looming, I purchased more logo-emblazoned sweatshirts, coffee mugs, and tote bags than one human ever ought to own, and encouraged everybody I knew to do the same. Still, it is obvious that restaurants will not be saved by T-shirt sales alone. I’ve found a measure of relief in a simple piece of advice passed along by a friend: pick three businesses that matter to you and your community—a manageable number—and then pour everything you can into making sure they come out O.K. on the other side. But, in September, during a Zoom conversation I had with the chef David Chang to promote his new memoir, he put the same idea in more dire terms, invoking philosophy’s infamous trolley problem: “I think ninety per cent of independent restaurants are going to die,” he said. “We need to start to choose which ones we want to prop up.”



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