Thursday, 4 Mar 2021

It’s 30 Degrees. Shall We Have Brunch Outdoors?

It's winter, and the pandemic is going strong. But die-hard New Yorkers still want to meet up with friends for a meal.

By Corina Knoll

The macaroni and cheese flecked with fresh pepper was hot and comforting and paired nicely with the French beer — a Kronenbourg accompanied by a slice of orange peel. Served at St. James Gate on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the meal perked up Genevieve Feldmann on Sunday even though she was dining outside. In 30 degrees.

Layered in three coats, leggings under jeans and wool socks, Ms. Feldmann, 35, said the cold did not discourage her from making it to the pub, where she has become a fixture along with a crowd of other regulars eager to support the restaurant. It is one of her rare opportunities to be social, and she doesn’t mind dressing for the occasion.

“The wind picks up, it gets a little chilly, but you know what, you just kind of deal with it,” said Ms. Feldmann, who works in equity research. “We all stick through it because this place is really special to us.”

New York City, emptied of its tourists and foot traffic, can seem an especially barren place during the pandemic. The onset of winter’s chill has limited outdoor escapes, making quarantine feel even more cruel, particularly during those long stretches when there is only icy wind and no snow to soften the landscape.

But there is life along the streets still: the die-hards who brave outdoor dining even when the temperature falls below freezing and a patio heater cannot shield them from a January breeze. Even at night, when the few degrees donated by the sun disappear, people arrive to shiver through dinner with numb fingers and toes.

Outdoor dining was that summer boost that gave restaurants and their customers hope, but it was never clear what would happen when the weather turned. Now the answer can be seen in those dedicated to sallying onward through the frostiest of days.

It is not what it was, but outdoor dining has managed to survive, with loyal patrons determined to save a restaurant, and friends who insist on finding a safe way to meet up. Restaurants have rallied to show their pluck, cranking up heaters, setting out fresh flowers, decking tables with cheery linens, stringing lights around sidewalk booths even as the city’s upcoming restaurant week is reimagined for takeout and delivery.

For Ms. Feldmann, who lives down the block from St. James Gate, the pub has been a second home where she heads nearly every day. The staff knows her favorites on the menu, and she has managed to see more friends during the pandemic than before. Having a go-to spot has been life-changing since her office shut down and she began working from home, she said.

Five blocks away at the Consulate, friends Katie O’Brien, 38, and Lauren Meyer, 39, arrived armed with hand sanitizer, hot water bottles and hand warmers to slip inside their gloves. They were happy to learn that the restaurant provided blankets, which they wrapped around themselves as they drank wine at a table near the entrance. When the hamburgers appeared, they took their gloves off and put them back on between bites.

“I decided if I definitely wanted to go out, I just have to accept it’s going to be cold,” said Ms. O’Brien, who was celebrating her birthday.

The two had looked at more than a dozen restaurants for seating that wasn’t enclosed and offered enough space between tables, wanting to be as safe as possible.

Being social while cautious is on many diners’ minds as the number of coronavirus cases in New York increases. While the surge has not been as devastating as the one that the city experienced last spring, the death rate has slowly risen throughout January to about 60 people per day, and more than 50 ZIP codes in the five boroughs show a positive test rate over 10 percent.

The city has also struggled with a sluggish vaccine rollout. In New York City, home to an estimated 8.5 million people, only about 532,000 first doses have been administered. Recently a vaccine supply shortage forced health officials to move scheduled appointments to a later date.

Still, New Yorkers want to get out. In Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Maria Myrtil scouted out Sweet Brooklyn Bar & Grill to see if it had safety protocols in place before making a reservation on Sunday to sit with friends inside a small plastic enclosure resembling a tiny greenhouse.

Ms. Myrtil, 28, approved of the layout, which included a tabletop heater. She did, however, adjust her approach to ordering.

“This used to be known for their bottomless brunch,” she said of the restaurant. “But how many mimosas do I really want when it’s 30 degrees outside?”

Nearby, Virginie Guebie and Noel Campbell said they found themselves at Sweet Brooklyn after their plans to go into Manhattan for brunch were derailed by subway delays. The couple cooks a lot, but wanted a chance to leave their apartment.

“Sometimes you want to just sit down and enjoy a meal without having to worry about washing dishes or what’s left in the fridge,” Mr. Campbell, 36, said.

Ms. Guebie, 41, added, “You need to feel like you have a sense of normalcy.”

Cold-weather patrons tend be particularly respectful, said Rebecca Brown, the manager of Chavela’s, a Mexican restaurant in Crown Heights.

“People are almost too polite,” Ms. Brown, 37, said. “When you walk to the table, everyone scrambles to get their mask on. So I think there’s definitely an awareness that we’re here for them.”

Outside, two dozen diners sat in new enclosures attached to the restaurant on both sides of its corner entrance, while other patrons waited on the curb in a scene approaching pre-pandemic Sunday brunch ritual.

Annie Black, 31, arrived by herself for what was her second meal outside the home this winter. “I don’t mind the cold,” she said, “more, I just worry for everybody’s safety. But having a day date to yourself these days is a real treat.”

At Hi-Life, a restaurant and bar on the Upper West Side, black tables sat empty as the lunch hour began. Still, the owner, Earl Geer, remained optimistic.

“It’s about doing the best you can,” Mr. Geer, 63, said, sitting outside in a booth under his restaurant’s vintage neon sign. “It’s showing up with your best every day and putting one foot in front of the other, and in the end, that spirit will prevail.”

Mr. Geer opened the place three decades ago, inspired by the Art Deco lounges of the 1930s. He takes pride in the fact that his establishment has never closed — not on Sept. 11, not during the blackout of 2003 and not during Hurricane Sandy. He credits his employees and family members for carrying the restaurant through a string of rough patches, including the Great Recession, although nothing has been quite like the pandemic, which Mr. Geer described as “a new adventure in survival.”

But even the onset of winter has not shaken his hope in customers who seem to recognize their role in keeping a business afloat.

“Most of the time they’re New Yorkers looking to meet us halfway,” he said. “We’re going to survive it.”

Moments later, three patrons appeared, and Mr. Geer jumped up to greet them with a grin.

Sean Piccoli and Téa Kvetenadze contributed reporting.

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