We asked our readers their opinion of outdoor dining in Hell’s Kitchen — and over 270 replied with their views on what’s become an emotive subject in New York. We also spoke to local business owners whose livelihood has been saved by the Open Restaurants program — but who are now threatened by changes that the city continues to make to regulations.
Our survey comes as local eateries continue to deal with uncertainty around outdoor dining. Yesterday, we reported that New Yorkers will not be dining under the glow of propane heaters this fall and winter. The decision to ban the use of propane at restaurants is seen as a fire-safety measure — even though no fires were reported last year as a result of outdoor dining.
Patch reported this week about a group of Manhattan residents, including two from Hell’s Kitchen, who are suing to block permanent outdoor dining. Also, Eater said that Mayor de Blasio will tear down any unused dining structures found in the next couple of days.
Overall, 74% of those readers who took our survey were in favor of the Open Restaurants program, with just over 13% wanting the program to stop and 12% undecided.
Most respondents were supportive of continuing the program because of its ability to sustain local businesses. “These businesses need all of the opportunities to make up for the horrible year and a half that we’ve gone through. If we want to keep our neighborhood alive and vibrant with many dining options, we must continue this”, said Edward B.
Cesar R believes that the program enables business owners to “recoup revenue otherwise lost during the lockdown, re-employ a workforce that was out of a job, and help revitalize a city that is still getting itself back on its feet.”
Readers also identify the program’s contribution to the reduction of COVID-19 transmission.
“I think it would be ridiculous to make them shut this down now that we feel comfortable going back inside, when they did so much to make us feel comfortable dining out. It would be selfish and not very New Yorker-ly to shut down outdoor dining,” said Sydney Lapin.
The strongest support was due to the positive change the outdoor structures have had on the quality of New York Life. “I love the excitement and joy in the Manhattan streets these days, thanks to the sidewalk restaurants,” said one reader who wanted to remain anonymous.
Michael H said: “More room for socializing, patronizing stores, community engagement, less cars, please. More room for people. It’s about time we move into the 21st century of urban design.”
“It also gives the opportunity to see humans interacting in ways that we were deprived of for so long during the lockdowns. Seeing New York’s family and friends smiling and sharing joy over a meal makes me smile every time I see it,” said Elijah B.
The folks on the fence could see the benefits and drawbacks of the program.
“As indoor capacity returns to pre-COVID levels and tourism returns to the city, I think that our public sidewalks would benefit from more clear regulations and better enforcement of those regulations,” said Robert B.
Those who were unsure shared many of the views of those who object to the outdoor spaces, citing the visual appeal (or lack thereof), the presence of vermin and garbage and a lack of safety as reasons for not supporting the program.
“Many of these structures have made our area look like a total dump. The overflowing trash, rats and shantytown type buildings make half of Hell’s Kitchen look like skid row,” said an anonymous reader.
Heather told us: “These structures in the street create havoc for bikers who use bike lanes during restaurant operating hours. As a biker, I have had way too many close calls with patrons who cross over the bike lane, without looking, to get to their tables.”
“With a few exceptions, most restaurants in Hell’s Kitchen have transformed the neighborhood into a slum that is dangerous, dirty, filthy, unsanitary, inconvenient for pedestrians, and just an eyesore,” said Florian.
“I’m not in favor of the restaurants that grabbed significant space only to do nothing with them…they tend to be used to shoot up drugs in, pass out, die, poop, rape, hold gang meetings, sell guns and drugs, have sex,” said Judith M.
A few respondents also identified the need to move beyond the pandemic.
“I think it’s very important for New Yorkers’ mental health that we get back to living our lives as they were pre-C19. The outdoor dining shanties are a depressing daily reminder of the worst of the pandemic days,” said Susan P.
Tracey C said: “This was designed to help restaurants when dining indoors was not allowed. New York is now fully open and most restaurants can’t even handle the extra seating they’ve created.”
Across all groups, a majority of respondents agreed that the city would benefit from stringent governance and policy — which was also a key point of feedback from business owners.
“Prior to COVID, enclosed sidewalk cafes were subject to Community Board review. If these temporary outdoor dining sheds become permanent fixtures in our streets…the community should have an opportunity to review and comment on any future applications,” said Robert B.
Catie Savage told us: “We need more regulations and guidelines to ensure safety for pedestrians. We also need clear sanitation plans for both the restaurants and the residential spaces that they are now blocking from leaving their trash at the curb that is now a restaurant.”
“Some are just unsafe and others really interfere with normal day-to-day non-restaurant activities (traffic, walking on sidewalks, bike lanes, etc). They also need to be maintained in a way that shows that they are cared for and not looking like a shack without any care,” said an anonymous reader.
Business owners shared their challenges with us. Maya Joseph at Sullivan Street Bakery (which does not have outdoor dining, but supplies many of the city’s restaurants) said: “This was a lifeline for so many last year, and I know some places with monster sheds are doing better than ever. But most places, outdoor dining or not, aren’t. We are affected indirectly, through our wholesale restaurant customers — sidewalk and street dining is what is keeping some of them, and in turn us, going.”
Maya and her husband, Jim Lahey, live above the bakery on W47th Street. “As a neighbor and restaurant lover, I adore the feel of everyone out on the street eating and feeling like I’m always walking through a restaurant. Of course, I’m also usually inside by 9pm, and don’t have problematic neighbors,” Maya said.
Peter Dafnos, owner of the Westway Diner on 9th Avenue, said: “As a business owner I would like to have clarity on the outdoor dining setups — if they are going to be permanent structures or are they going to make us remove them. I would like to invest a bit more into the structure we have to make it more appealing and more winter-proof — but with no clarity, I don’t want to spend money on something that can be torn down. Our costs for running the restaurant are increasing on a daily basis.”
James Gwynne at Hudson Station Bar and Grill on 9th Avenue is among the majority of business owners who did not receive support from the Restaurant Relief Fund. “I wish I had outdoor seating. I have the bike lane and way too much traffic and noise for it to work. The reasons for the sheds were to help businesses that are struggling, but the city, state and fed needs to help with replenishment of the Restaurant Relief Fund first. There will be more places closed down than they could fathom, leaving sheds and vacant storefronts.”
“Our outdoor dining structure is stylish and complements the avenue, and is locked up nightly to prevent interlopers. The one in front of our neighbors, 44&X is exquisitely designed and crafted. While not everyone can understand how important it is to allow restaurants to find ways to accommodate customers who understandably still don’t feel comfortable eating indoors, I hope those people at least find the structures on our block to be more attractive than an entire block of empty storefronts, because frankly, that is the alternative. I would suggest these critics consider using this energy to support small businesses and the working families their payrolls feed, rather than looking for ways to pick off the family-owned restaurants that have miraculously survived the pandemic, at least so far,” said Charlie Marshall at The Marshal on 10th Avenue, responding to the critics.
Steve Olsen at West Bank Cafe on W42nd Street told us: “I think permanent outdoor structures should be allowed, but there should be some sort of template as to how they are constructed; some of them look really shabby and have poor ventilation. And yes, the city should tear down any structures that are not being used or look like they are collapsing, providing the tenant/ owner receives proper notice. The city could really look great if our outdoor cafes were beautifully designed.”
“The Open Restaurants program was an absolute lifeline for the NYC restaurant industry. The extra space allowed us to stay open continuously throughout the pandemic, even without indoor seating. In a short time, streetside dining has become an integral part of the fabric of our neighborhoods. I am confident that reasonable guidelines can solve any problems with the current program, allowing us to all enjoy the new space well into the future,” said Robert Guarino, the owner of Marseille on 9th Avenue.
Sean Hayden, owner/partner at Jasper’s Taphouse and Kitchen, and four other bars including McCoy’s, Dalton’s, and Valerie in Midtown, told us: “The rats and the homeless problems have been around long before the introduction of these outdoor structures. If it wasn’t for the outdoor structures and financial aid, 90% of the restaurants wouldn’t have made it over the last 18 months. The value of outdoor dining is immense and it will be the main reason if we stay open or not. Up to now, there is much confusion. Every inspector that comes from the City has a different take on what’s right and what’s not.”
“I don’t think the answer is to block the program. I think the answer is to improve the program,” said Mandy Oser, the owner of Ardesia on W52nd Street. “Put in place smart and clear guidelines with enforceable regulations. Let’s think bigger… Let’s look at cities around the world where successful outdoor dining exists and let’s put together the best practices and implement them here. The Open Restaurants program was a major factor in the survival of thousands of restaurants during COVID and I don’t think we should be so quick to toss it aside.”