BY DEAN MOSES
There is a new sport popping up around Queens and the surrounding boroughs, a movement that has the young and old pursuing the perfect outside dining scene.
Since the advent of COVID-19 and the dawn of curbside eateries, throngs of individuals have been scouring numerous neighborhoods for the perfect mixture of fine dining, rustic ambience and the ability to entertain friends in a socially distant setting. For many, this “it” spot has become Ditmars Boulevard in Astoria.
Like any sport, this activity has two sides, yet instead of playing against one another, the teams here work in tandem. On one side we have consumers looking to enjoy a meal with fresh air, and on the other we have the businesses. Like peacocks spreading their plumage to attract a mate, local restaurants have been sparing little expense when constructing their own unique dining zones decorated with potted plants, Plexiglas barriers and yawning awnings.
Pedestrians will be hard pressed to walk down any New York City street without spying some fresh outdoor design to put butts in seats, such as the ability to pay extra for a VIP booth that Nino’s AQ employs.
However, in order for both teams to continue playing fairly, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has implemented strict regulations that prevent the serving of alcohol unless ordered with food. This comes in hopes of preventing overcrowding and unlawful social clusters, akin to what we have been seeing recently along Steinway Street. We spoke with both diners and local restaurants, getting their takes on the newest rules and the new culture that is outside dining.
Gissella Guzman and her husband Ryan Guzman were both victims of the coronavirus mere months ago. For three weeks, the couple remained home battling severe sickness. Now, on a beautiful summer afternoon, they have pocketed their masks to dine out with drinks to regain some semblance of normalcy.
“We had COVID-19 like three months ago, so we have antibodies and we’re not totally concerned. We have masks to put on when we are not eating. It was awful — three weeks of hell. But we are good now,” Ryan Guzman said.
Still, despite suffering from the virus themselves, they are wary of Cuomo’s new rule prohibiting bars and restaurants from serving alcohol alone.
“I think it’s OK because it prevents crowds, but it doesn’t make any sense. People are going to do what they want to do,” Gissella said.
Ryan nodded in agreement, saying, “It’s not that hard to get around it by just selling a bag of chips. There are always ways to work around it.”
Ciara O’Sullivan, manager of The Rivercrest, takes the new rules in stride, and simply reiterates to customers the guidelines upon seating them at a table.
“We have a few smaller options that they can order. We have sides with chips, side with fries, carrots and celery with ranch, and crackers with chive cream cheese. We have options if people don’t want to get a full meal. They can still get something substantial and it’s not going to be an extra $10 or even $5 onto the menu,” O’Sullivan said.
Ditmars Boulevard has become an extensive strip made up of hanging fairy lights and the sound of chatter, with some locations even playing booming music. Almost every business makes use of a distinctive theme — that is, except for those like TRU Astoria, for whom it simply business as usual.
“We normally have outside dining, and that’s one of the pluses for us at TRU. We are operating on a normal summer schedule on steroids because of the extra seating. So, the thing that we are lacking is our bar business and the inside seating. Everyone is sick of being inside, so it doubly helped us. We are very blessed to be open,” said TRU Astoria general manager Yanni Stathakis, who isn’t feeling any backlash from Cuomo’s new alcohol requirement.
“We’re not that type of place; probably only 10 percent of people want to come to us to grab a drink and walk the streets. If someone does want to do that, we try to refer them to one of the other businesses as well. We’re more of the sit-down, family place,” Stathakis said.
The impact on restaurants from coronavirus, the inability to operate at full capacity, and new alcohol regulations are worrisome to local residents, as well as business owners themselves. Astoria resident Gabriella Macena has seen many local businesses struggle and is overcome with emotion as she sees these locations reopen and flourish.
“We have all seen how much trouble it has been for local business owners, and just to see everybody out again, it’s very nice. It feels like they, like we, are free again,” Macena said.
Although it reassures Macena to visit her favorite diners again, she also admits she has seen problems pop up firsthand.
“There are those who are abusing that freedom. Last Sunday, I was on Steinway Street at night and just walking by … it was just scary. Like there were hundreds of people out with no masks. It wasn’t spaced, and it was just scary,” Macena said. “But I also feel that some of the restaurants are getting more clients now than they did previously. Some of the places, I had never even paid attention to. As everybody has outdoor space, even if you don’t want to eat out, you still look and check the menu. I think some of the businesses have benefited and built clientele.”
Mere blocks from where Macena was dining, the troubles she talked of are being felt by Antonia Joannides, manager at Queen’s Room. Prior to the pandemic, Queen’s Room did not have a grand outside dining area on their curbside. The staff had to adjust their daily routine, which now consists of their usual maintenance as well as whipping out a measuring tape and moving the tables, seats and umbrellas outside every morning. The addition of Cuomo’s new rule added yet another obstacle.
“It’s almost kind of funny. Like, you’re so against having to do one more thing or hurdle after you cleared the last one. So, it gets frustrating just trying to run a business every day,” Joannides said. “You have to order food with your drinks and that’s a pain in the ass. We made little chips and nachos plates, little cheap things to just buy now. We are more of a sit-down place; come the weekends some people want to just grab drinks. So rather than lose the business altogether, we played by the rules.”
As businesses shell out more money and gimmicks to attract customers, the thirst for normalcy has outweighed the need for compliance for many individuals. Particularly during the weekend, Ditmars Boulevard is crawling with people trying to return to life as it were, but it’s up to the restaurants now to be the bodyguards of their own businesses or else risk losing their liquor license thanks to Cuomo’s regulations.