The buzz of cicadas usually signals the untroubled return of cool nights and pumpkin spice lattes, oyster season and the grape harvest. Fall is when Long Island spins its summer glory into autumn reds and golds. This year, however, there’s an edge to those crisper days, at least for restaurants and those who love them: Winter is coming, and with it, a possible hard stop to outdoor dining, a salvation for restaurants during an almost biblical year.
With indoor dining still held in check at half capacity by New York state, the looming disappearance of those saving-grace tents and makeshift patios could spell trouble for restaurants, especially if a dreaded second wave of coronavirus appears.
Long Island restaurateurs have been preparing for this moment for months. In April, Dave Boller, co-owner of Garden Social Beer Garden & Kitchen in East Meadow, partnered with two research agencies to survey the attitudes of diners. Over 795 people answered from the tristate area and beyond, yielding valuable intel on what they wanted from a dining experience in the age of coronavirus.
Back then, nearly half (46%) were ready to get back into restaurants, but 48% said they’d be much more cautious when they did; when queried on what would help make them make a decision to visit a local restaurant, 70% said they wanted more space. Also clear: Diners wanted to see more visible cleaning of a restaurant (86%), and hoped new protocols would stay in place for six months to a year (73%).
As a result of the study, Garden Social sank $65,000 into improvements, from a new HVAC system to vinyl walls bordering the heated beer garden. "What [customers] are concerned with is the person sitting next to them. They wanted air purification and this idea of space, of not feeling that you’re in a closet," Boller said. "We took those points and acted on it, and shared it with other restaurateurs. We’re all in — we have no choice."
From lingering tents, flickering fire pits and cleaner air, here are some things you might encounter if you dine out this fall.
New outdoor structures--igloos and greenhouses
The half-moon, clear plastic igloos that had their moment on Long Island last winter will make a glorious, and more numerous, return. The experience of dining in a personal dome doesn’t come cheap: At both Maxwell’s in Islip and ITA Kitchen in Bay Shore, which each have two igloos apiece, a $150 deposit buys a round of drinks for everyone in the party — up to 8 people — but not toward the final bill. The time limit is usually two hours.
Despite the restrictions, ITA Kitchen co-owner Christina Sorrentino (her husband, Salvatore, is chef and the other owner) is already notching reservations for the igloos once they debut Nov. 1. Behind the restaurant, ITA will also erect three miniature dining greenhouses, similar to the ones from Amsterdam that went viral on social media a few months ago.
"They’re going to be beautifully decorated, with white linen, mini-chandeliers and self-controlled heating units," said Sorrentino, as well as music systems. Both igloos and greenhouses have windows which zip open and allow servers to pass gin cocktails and rigatoni amatriciana to diners inside without entering the space.
The six-seat greenhouses cost $125 to reserve on weekends, and less during the week, she said. All told, the 34 extra seats between the igloos and greenhouses mirror the indoor seating capacity of ITA Kitchen, which opened about a year ago. "In these times, when we can only have 50% capacity, to really be successful you have to be able to utilize your outdoor space 12 months of the year," Sorrentino said.
Tents and makeshift patios will remain
Memories were made this summer under the circuslike tents that sprung up all over Long Island, and we would be sad to see their large-scale dismantling. In some towns and villages they will be allowed to stay intact until at least the holidays.
In the village of Port Jefferson, for instance — where decked-out tented patios have sprouted behind restaurants such as Port Bistro & Pub and Barito Tacos & Cocktails — outdoor dining permits usually expire November, but this year will be extended indefinitely said village clerk Barbara Sakovich.
Ditto for the Town of Hempstead, one of the first on Long Island to waive fees for temporary outdoor dining permits and allow new outdoor dining setups where they never were before. The current deadline for those permits is Dec. 30, but town spokesman Greg Blower said that date was likely flexible. "It’s a new landscape for everyone, and we’re trying to help. If things continue as they are … I don’t think there will be a hard stop."
More ways to stay warm
This will be the fall of blankets and flickering flames — or, at least, gas-powered heating lamps and fire pits. At the harborside bar Cooper Bluff in Oyster Bay, owner Rustan Lundstrom commissioned a handful of custom-made fire pits that he placed along his patio and ringed with couches and Adirondack chairs. "We usually stay open til September, but this year we want to extend outdoor dining using fire pits to make it loungey and fun, almost like a Caribbean vibe," said Lundstrum.
Soon, the Cooper Bluff bar will also pour mulled cider and spiked hot chocolate, and the on-site food truck (which is table-service only for now) will add warming dishes such as s’mores. "We’ll still have burgers and lobster rolls, but we’ll get into heartier food," he said, adding that he is considering outdoor pods for his other business in town, Coach Meeting House.
In Babylon, the Chamber of Commerce used a $5,000 grant from PSEG to purchase 20 propane-fueled heating lamps, handing them out to member businesses such as The Brixton and The Villager. "We’re hoping that’s something that will keep people dining out until November," said Chamber president Kelly Peckholdt. "Clearly, some businesses are already struggling. We wanted to see what we could do to help."
North of Huntington village, at Prime, the waterside terrace has been semi-enclosed with automatic vinyl panels that can be rolled down to withstand cold and winds of up to 35 piles per hour; on the patio itself are infrared lamps and radiant floor heating. "We’re trying to take what we’ve learned over the 14 years we’ve been open there, and to use that expertise and knowledge," said Kurt Bohlsen, managing partner of the Bohlsen Restaurant Group (BRG), who own restaurants across Long Island.
Move toward cleaner indoor air
Inside Prime and a few other BRG restaurants — H20 in Smithtown, Tellers in Islip and its sister restaurant, Verace — the group has invested $100,000 in more powerful HVAC systems that use MERV-13 air filters, which are among the most stringent and filter out up to 85% of coronavirus particles, as well as other particulates.
The MERV-13 filters are currently required by New York state for malls, but not yet for restaurants.
"We wanted to make sure everyone is safe," said Michael Bohlsen, also a BRG managing partner of BRG. The group invested in its own consumer research study via OpenTable, gathering intel on diner attitudes. "We don’t know what’s going to happen next week. It is most likely to be one of the most toughest winters, and we’re prepared for the worst but will hope for the best. The best thing to do is make employees feel safe. "
At Garden Social, Boller and his partners went with an HVAC system that uses bipolar ionization for filtering air; the system is used by NYU Langone Medical Center. "Quite frankly, it was the consumers who told us we needed this," he said.
Creative indoor partitions
Custom-built indoor partitions, constructed from wood and clear plastic, have become fixtures in many salons — but they’ve also migrated into restaurants and bars such as Blackbird in Wantagh and Barito Tacos & Cocktails in Port Jefferson, where a partition at the centerpiece bar divides it into four sections for patrons, and shields the bartender. "Without it, we would have lost a lot of our seating," said co-owner Matt Murray of the structure, which was painted in the signature pastels of the space. A slim opening at the bottom of the partition allows the bartender to slide through drinks and food, while groups can talk to each other through the film; for those still nervous to venture inside, Barito has an enormous tent out back that feels like an event space, with its own hostess desk.
Innovative takeout options— especially at smaller restaurants
When lockdown began in the spring, Nathalee Francis, the owner of Coalhouse Grill in Baldwin, kept her 24-seat restaurant going by quickly pivoting to curbside pickup, as well as delivery — and saw a surge in orders. She also adjusted the menu to reflect the need for food to travel. "Before, our food has been prepared on the spot. We added more comfort foods, dishes that were convenient for people," said Francis, whose kitchen plates Jamaican-inspired dishes such as braised curried goat and jerk chicken.
When indoor dining was reinstated, Coalhouse Grill’s indoor seating was reduced to a mere dozen seats. Francis added a small outdoor area, but was cognizant that inclement weather will draw that to an end. When it gets too cold, she plans to keep her indoor seating, but will double down on takeout. "We just have to follow what the government says. It’s to protect us all. Yes, my business might take a hit," she said, "but if we’re not around, there would be no business."