West Side Rag “How an Out of Work Tour Guide Created a Coffee Table Book About the” Streets “of New York
Posted on December 1, 2021 at 5:17 p.m. by Carol Tannenhauser
By Peggy Taylor
I love sidewalk cafes. So last year, when Covid closed indoor dining and Mayor de Blasio extended alfresco dining as part of the Open Restaurants program, I internally jumped for joy and hoped that New York would become Paris-on-the-Hudson. After college, I had spent a decade shopping around Parisian cafes, so the idea that they could flourish here thrilled me endlessly. Yes, I knew it would come from a tragedy, but I couldn’t wait to see it happen.
As well as shutting down the restaurant industry, the pandemic devastated the tourism industry, so as a New York City tour guide specializing in Harlem Gospel and Jazz tours, I quickly found myself unemployed. Like many West Siders, I stayed close to home and only ventured out to shop and stroll through Central Park. Then, in June 2020, following the launch of Open Restaurants, I overcame my fear of public transportation and decided to explore the city and document our new outdoor dining scene. Did the City really allow restaurants to set up on sidewalks and roads? under the trees in the street and the scaffolding sheds; above hatches and manhole covers? A restaurant even ended up on the ground floor of a homeless shelter.
I decided to call these outdoor installations “streets”, as the media had started to call them (exact origin unknown). I had never had dinner before and would probably never have dinner again. I have mainly explored Manhattan, but have also been to the Bronx and Queens. I did it in summer, fall and winter, in heat, cold, snow and rain.
So what did I find? Deliciously animated streets as the restaurateurs offered us a dizzying spectacle of yurts, huts, bubbles, faux Swiss chalets and tents suspended from plastic chandeliers. Some streets were upscale and elegant, but many were run down and ugly. Critics described the horrors as “shacks,” “favellas” and “slums,” but New Yorkers still flocked to them, wondering why we didn’t always dine this way. Even the people who had fled to the Hamptons returned for a day of dining on the streets only to find out what was new. No need to drink beer in the dark saloons anymore. We were all outside now, eating and drinking in the light.
We were also eating and drinking closer to traffic than ever before. Incredibly, we found ourselves having dinner in streets inches from the sanitation trucks, concrete mixers, car carriers and semi-trailers roaring above our necks. “I can’t believe I’m so close to this fire engine that I can talk to the driver,” says a Nice Matin brunchist. Another sprang from how it all was European. “I have the impression of being in Paris!
One of the things that struck me was how often the streeterias have changed. Restaurateurs were constantly innovating, or, as one of them put it, “We threw stuff on the wall and we went with what stuck”. For example, at the start of the pandemic, the Harvest Kitchen on Columbus Avenue placed chairs and tables between bike paths and cars, “protected” only by candlesticks and yellow police tape. But soon this street was replaced by a tent with a three-sided wooden fence that also served as a planter. It later became what we see today with hardwood flooring, plastic curtains, and a balustrade overflowing with flowers.
Jean-Georges at 1 Central Park West made us dine in style with his comfortable winter ski cabins fitted with carpets, padded benches, portable heaters and air purifiers. Some have complained that these cabins were not alfresco dining, and I also questioned them at first, but when I saw their air purifier and wall and roof hatches that opened easily for l fresh air, I fell in love with them. After having dinner in one, I didn’t want to come home.
Another neighborhood street, the Café du Soleil, at 104th and Broadway, enchanted me with its zipped plastic bubbles reserved only for families or people who knew each other.
Another of my favorites was Rancho Tequileria at the 95th and Amsterdam whose miniature pennants in bright red, gold and orange cheered me up. It was a much needed antidote to the all-black streeterias that were all too common. Their black barriers, their black chairs, their black tables, their black signage exasperated me. How to choose black for a beer garden? Wasn’t the pandemic depressing enough?
Then there was the neighborhood hit, Il Violino, on Columbus and 69th, whose streets change with the seasons: Christmas Cottage (with tin soldiers and candy canes); Spring Cottage (tulips and wreaths of flowers); Easter Cottage (Mr. & Mrs. Rabbit, with Easter eggs and carrots.)
I had a ball to capture all of this.
But not everyone liked streetwear. Critics complained of being too loud; drivers complained about lost parking spaces; pedestrians have taken over the wasted space on the sidewalk. “It’s not Paris!” the others fumed. The diners in the open air, they said, would be accosted by the homeless, manhandled by the vagabonds; the streets would invite vandals, arsonists and rats and would be overrun with uncontrollable drivers. “How would you like a Lyft in your soup?” Growled a critic. A lot of these things have actually happened, but not to the extent that the City has to abandon the program.
Even today, a vocal minority demands the end of the program. They cite noise, dirt and rats as issues, but as one restaurateur retorted, “New York City had noise, dirt and rats before Covid. Recent surveys show that the majority of New Yorkers love streetwear, which is why many restaurants retain their bubbles, huts, and cabins even when indoor dining resumes. The Greens ‘ski chalets featured on the cover of my book are back this winter, as are Jean-Georges’ chalets. Bergdorf Goodman has announced that their sidewalk café, B&G on Fifth, will return next spring.
Given their popularity, streeterias are clearly here to stay, and our ongoing battle with the Delta variant and now Omicron will ensure their longevity. It will be fine with me.