NYC’s outdoor dining scene is out of control — and only one group can fix it

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Eat it and weep: Death of NYC's restaurant scene was greatly exaggerated 

The Open Restaurants program launched in spring 2020, which permitted restaurants to serve customers on sidewalks and in the street without having to pay rent or fees, indisputably saved the industry from collapse when indoor service was prohibited. It was a rare de Blasio gift to New Yorkers, who emerged from apartments where they were held up for months to safely eat, drink and socialize outdoors. 

In the Wild West atmosphere, restaurateurs threw up improvised sheds of cheap plywood and planters, finessed chronic rule changes, and made deals with next-door landlords to colonize more sidewalk space.

It was the Big Apple at its spontaneous, can-do best. Over time, some places spent up to $100,000 to install more charming alfresco setups like Restaurant Daniel’s row of “Riviera cabanas,” or Fresco by Scotto’s “lemon grove” that looks like it should be crawling with live monkeys and parrots. 

But it also spawned a monster whose contours are just now coming into focus. Most alfresco setups are hideously ugly. They screw up traffic. They force employees to freeze in winter, swelter in summer, and navigate dangerous bike lanes year-round. Most of the proliferating, metastasizing outdoor sheds resemble Third World construction projects which ran out of money. Many have outlived their usefulness while continuing to gobble up thousands of parking spaces and traffic lanes from the Battery to Inwood. 

When the Open Restaurants program for alfresco facilities expires at the end of the year, some 11,500 places will face a new, presumably stiffer set of rules. They’ll include fees for the first time, new safety requirements, rules for numbers of seats and even directives for how the structures should look. 

Terrifying to consider, of all the agencies which will have a say — such as the State Liquor Authority, the FDNY and the city’s departments of planning, health, buildings and sanitation — the one with the biggest bully role is the Department of Transportation. 

Yup, the same DOT that permanently snarled traffic with bike lanes and unloved “plazas,” brought buses to a standstill, and imposed suburban-style “no turn” rules that make you drive from First Avenue to Ninth Avenue to turn left. Did I mention that on DOT’s watch, traffic deaths in 2020 soared to 243, the highest total since Mayor de Blasio’s “Vision Zero” plan was announced in 2014? 

Asking the DOT to fix all these problems is like letting the Board of Elections write the menus. 

And there are a lot of problems to consider: 

First, Open Restaurants was criminally unfair to restaurants unlucky to be in the wrong locations. Eateries on corners or blessed with wide sidewalk frontages could double their number of seats rent-free. But midblock cafes with smaller footprints, or those fronting on bus stops, Citibike racks or fire hydrants, were lucky to get a handful of extra chairs or none at all. That’s why RedEye Grill on the corner of Seventh Avenue and West 56th Street has a huge outdoor dining area, while the ordinarily more popular Trattoria dell’Arte, located mid-block next door, has yet to reopen. 

Geographical discrimination was easy to overlook during last year’s wartime conditions, but now it’s unjustifiable. 

Meanwhile, architects want the sheds to look better. Some fret that the outdoor cafes aren’t accessible enough to the handicapped. Car-haters would like to turn entire streets into “plazas.” (They’d be happy for any street obstruction that would reduce driving lanes). 

And what’s to become of rules that still absurdly require outdoor venues to keep half of their walls and roof open to the elements, even though no such rules apply indoors? 

When it comes to taming this now out-of-control beast, the DOT is out of its league, depth and luck. 

For outdoor dining to have a future, the DOT needs a curb on its power. The new rules must have input from the restaurants themselves. 

The next mayor should appoint a top professional who understands and loves the business — a Danny Meyer, a Tom Colicchio, a Stephen Starr, or NYC Hospitality Alliance head Andrew Rigie — to ensure that the rules aren’t formulated in service of a bureaucratic or political agenda. 

Because if the transportation bureaucrats are on the case, restaurant owners should move their customers inside for good — before it’s too late.

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