After a Long, Dark Winter, Brooklyn Restaurants Are Feeling Cautiously Optimistic
Some business owners see the return of indoor dining, vaccinations, and better weather as promising signs the worst is behind them.
“Who wants to eat outside, especially during the winter?” asks Cristina Dura, the owner of Cristina’s, a long-standing Polish-American restaurant on Manhattan Avenue, the busy main street of Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
In less than a year, Dura’s restaurant — which has served Polish specialties such as crimson borscht, kielbasa sausages, and stuffed pierogi for nearly three decades — has been reduced to a couple of solitary tables in a makeshift, windswept garden out front. Inside the restaurant, beyond a maroon awning covered in ice, are 50 empty seats.
In the first week of February, like most New Yorkers, Dura stayed in during the heaviest snowfall in half a decade. Even the delivery drivers she’s come to rely on weren’t working.
Since Covid hit, survival for Cristina’s has become a Sisyphean task. Twice Dura has forked out for expensive outdoor-dining plastic tents and heaters, only for them to be wrecked by storms. Soon, once a fresh dump of snow has melted, she’ll have them installed again.
“Everyone is struggling now,” she says. “I have to spend another few thousand dollars from my pockets but I want to stay in business so I have to do whatever I have to do.”
On January 29, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced New York City restaurants would be allowed to fill a quarter of indoor seats again from Valentine’s Day, and the date has now been brought forward to February 12. It won’t help the dozen or so Greenpoint restaurants and bars that have shuttered since March 2020, but there are real reasons for business owners who have successfully stuck it out to feel hopeful.
On February 2, Mayor Bill de Blasio added hospitality workers to the list of New Yorkers eligible for vaccines, and Covid cases in the city seem to have peaked in line with the normal flu season, between December and February. Still, the demand for vaccines is far outstripping supply, and some experts say it’s too soon to bring back indoor dining safely.
Dr. David Dowdy, an associate professor at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says the risks are context specific.
“I think there are some places where transmission is going down and perhaps getting to a level where indoor dining may be okay in a phased fashion,” he says. “But in most places, I’d say it’s probably still a little early.”
There’s an economic argument for opening now, Dr. Dowdy acknowledges, but that may not be the only justification for Cuomo’s decision. People may be willing to accept a certain level of risk in order to enjoy life. With masks, vaccines, and better weather on the way, though, it may be worth holding out.
“[If] we wait another one, two, three months, we’re really going to be in a better place, and there is a reason to be optimistic going forward,” he says. “I think life may not be completely back to normal, but it will be much more normal than it has been.”
Justin Bazdarich, the chef-restaurateur behind a string of New York restaurants including Greenpoint’s Michelin-starred Mexican joint Oxomoco, compares the industry during the pandemic to the Wild West.
“I’ve seen pop-ups out of people’s houses. I’ve seen pop-ups out of places that are shuttered,” he says.
In January, Bazdarich and his business partner opened a second Greenpoint restaurant, Xilonen, in a prime spot by McCarren Park, which likely wouldn’t have come up a year ago.
“It’s rare to have a restaurant you can look out of and see trees in this city,” he says. “I know once the weather breaks — and once we have a liquor license and we can sell frozen Margaritas — then we’re good. It’s all good. But, till then, it’s scary.”