Dining in the turning lane.

These days, sitting at a dinner table in New York City directly facing oncoming traffic is a bit like climbing out of a rollercoaster in mid loop-de-loop. In order to survive you need a severe case of cabin-fever, a high tolerance for risk, a great relationship with your bladder, a healthy appetite…and a face-mask of course.

As I savor my chorizo-crusted cod while the sanitation truck idles right beside me churning garbage from the upper-east side, or as I splash Negroni all over my chin when the M101 bus suddenly blasts an impatient horn at a stopped SUV, I begin to wonder whether motorists from out-of-town are even aware that what used to be a turning lane – is now a dining room. While this respite from apartment cooking is certainly welcome, it’s merely a matter of time before the headlines read: “Three casualties as Range Rover ruins birthday dinner”, or “Texting driver rams couple during dessert”. 

It certainly has been disheartening to witness one staple institution after the next throwing in the napkin as a consequence of the lockdown. But then I find myself inspired by the resilience and determination of others who are trying to keep their wood-ovens burning despite all the new safety rules and regulations.

If I had to score how well restaurants are maintaining COVID safety measures? I’d give them a solid “D” for “it Depends”. Some have QR code menu’s with contactless bill-pay and sterilized, pre-packaged silverware, while others still clutch sticky, plastic menus under sweaty armpits, or hold your glass with an ungloved hand for water refills. But despite the chorus of complaints that most restaurateurs are still not able to eke out a living with sidewalk dining, others have won the jackpot as they can now exploit the motherlode of self-promotion and appetite persuasion by giving passers-by delectable temptations with some of their freshest, most desirable offerings in real time. Yes, even I have stopped and admired a dish of steaming Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe and promptly planted my rear-end into the nearest available seat.

Other advantages of dining in the parking lane include the diminishment of those irritatingly hoity-toity dress-codes like “business casual” or “cocktail attire” for the ever-so democratic “no mask – no service!” And obscure, hole-in-the-wall establishments are holes-in-the-wall no more, as their tables have crept up and down our sidewalks faster than rats on the subway.  Half of me is thrilled for these entrepreneurs who can now accommodate exponentially more diners per sitting than in pre-COVID times, but my heart goes out to their micro kitchens bursting at the seams, trying to satisfy quadruple the appetites. 

Scaffolding, formerly the ubiquitous feature along Manhattan’s streets, has been upstaged by a strange outcrop of little outdoor “areas” that defy description. Are they tents? Are they shacks, cabanas, marquees, food caves, sukkah’s? Regardless, there are no two alike. Some are merely umbrella-covered matchstick frames with a handful of morosely overwatered begonias. And if they have more elbow room, others have ensconced attractive hedging to keep diners apart. But every time I find myself sandwiched between those ridiculous plexiglass screens, I can’t help feeling like a hungry puppy in a pet shop window.

Even scaffolding-fronted bistros have made the best of their visual impediment by transforming their sidewalks into Disney-esque, theme park sensations. When clustered together on pedestrian-only cross-streets amid jazz bands and buskers, these shacks have somehow fashioned a uniquely warm and astonishingly festive ambiance which has become the newest nightlife attraction in a city formerly famous for not sleeping. Think: Oktoberfest – meets Chilli-cookout – meets travelling circus – meets Christmas market. 

As temperatures begin to plummet, many lightweight structures are getting overnight makeovers with sturdier materials including roofing, rain gutters and solid side-paneling (heat lamps are on the way) – quickly transforming them into enclosed “rooms” which will undoubtably beg the question: “Is this still considered “outdoor dining” or have we merely transplanted the restaurant’s interiors onto the sidewalk?” (If Governor Cuomo want’s my opinion on the matter, he knows where to find me.)

As we edge closer to the former normality of indoor dining, I have mixed feelings about whether folks will show up and risk infection or whether they might continue to dine al fresco even if the new dress-code includes coat, scalf, gloves…and face-mask.

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