Restaurants take another leap forward Wednesday, reopening indoor dining rooms for the first time since March 16. Phase 3 of Long Island's reopening arrives about 14 weeks since diners last walked out of restaurants, and is both a relief and a puzzle for many operators.
“We did what we never thought was possible. We're still standing three months later,” said Carol Offermann, who owns Nicky’s of Centerport with her husband, Toby.
With restaurants mandated to reduce their indoor seating to 50% of their pre-coronavirus capacity, Phase 3 will not be a walk in the park. The Offermanns and other proprietors have had to re-imagine their restaurants at every successive phase, including this one.
“Finally, we are coming back, and we get to bring in some tables and chairs,” said Lubna Habibi, chef and owner of Clay Oven in Hauppauge. But that means reducing her indoor seating from 60 to 30, and Habibi had to rent an external storage cubby for that out-of-use seating.
As owners rejig to meet the new rules, here are some tips for making the most of Phase 3.
Make reservations whenever possible.
Diners who have found that reservations are essential for some outdoor tables should prepare more of the same with regards to indoor dining, especially with seating so limited.
At Nicky’s, there will now be two seatings per night, at 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., which need reservations (outdoor tables will still be available for walk ins). At Stresa in Manhasset, reservations will also be essential for the 11 inside tables — down from the 22 the restaurant usually holds. “Reservations are required during this pandemic,” said Stresa co-owner Roberto D’Anna. There are only three seats left at a bar that used to hold eight. (And the restaurant has opened nine outdoor tables). “We’re limiting the occupancy at the bar and for those waiting for tables [inside]."
Expect to encounter inventive seating arrangements — and a few interior face-lifts.
Earlier this spring, a photo of diners inside glass booths at a Dutch restaurant went viral online. While mini-greenhouse tables have not yet debuted on Long Island, restaurant owners have made, or are still making, their own creative adjustments.
Glenn Falcone, owner of Gatsby’s Landing in Roslyn, is waiting on the delivery of what he called “Hollywood dining booths,” customized to match his décor. “They’re almost like an oval, and they’re more enclosed for everyone,” he said. A few can accommodate 8 to 10 people, he added, and together, they will seat 34 people in all — a significant slice of the 52 indoor seats Gatsby’s will have inside at half capacity. “I’m also waiting on a quote for partitions,” Falcone said, that will be made of acrylic.
At Nicky’s, a front window will be replaced this week with a sliding garage door and window counter, which will let more open air into the restaurant — perhaps putting nervous customers at ease, Offermann said — and dramatically change the facade of the restaurant.
“[Rules] are changing every day, and it’s been hard to figure out, and this will make the most of the front of the restaurant,” Offermann said. Just two weeks ago, she and her husband added outdoor seating for the first time in the 15 years they’ve owned the restaurant, and those tables will stay. “People love to eat outside. That’s one thing we’ve learned.”
Wear a mask at all times, except perhaps when sitting at your table.
Many rules that debuted during Phase 2 will not change in Phase 3, and wearing masks is one of them. Guests are required to have one on at all times on a restaurant’s premises, except when sitting at a table.
“Everything is a new normal, and having to police [masks] — that’s something that’s taken a lot of patience,” said Falcone of Gatsby’s Landing. “Some people want to do the right thing and be responsible. Other people are like, ‘no, I don’t want to wear a mask.’ We’re trying to be hospitable, and they’re being irresponsible, so that’s a little a tug of war right now.”
Continue to tip generously.
Over these rocky last few months, we’ve all learned about the thin margins restaurants operate on during even the best of times. For the foreseeable future, they’ll be operating at vastly reduced capacity. Add in those extra expenses — some Hollywood booths here, a new garage door there, outside storage for tables and chairs — and the financial picture is a tricky one.
If you’re going to dine out, keep the tip jars full.
Restaurant owners know everyone has a different comfort level, so be open about yours. (And if you're nervous, takeout is still a great bet).
Not everyone is going to be comfortable heading back inside to dine, and restaurant owners get that. “I feel like people are a little bit nervous about being indoors,” said D’Anna of Stresa. He had some words of reassurance: All menus at Stresa are now digital, so customers can scan a QR code to order from an online menu. “You also have the choice to get a disposable paper menu, which we will throw away.”
Staff will continue to be in masks and gloves everywhere — “even where its 110 degrees where they’re cooking the food,” noted Habibi — and sanitizing will be intense after each guest visit.
If those measures do not put a potential diner at ease, the tents and other imaginative indoor spaces that have cropped up from Valley Stream to Greenport are not going anywhere anytime soon, and creative takeout will continue to roll. “We’re really concentrating on the opportunity people have when opening the [takeout] package, thinking about aroma for instance, and what that triggers,” chef Stephan Bogardus of The Halyard in Greenport said in early May.
That waterfront hotel has dramatically expanded its outdoor seating and added grab-and-go items. “I think the reboot of the restaurant industry will make us focus on who we want to be, and how we go about it," he said.