Blustery weather previews the future of dining
High winds test the preparation of restaurants and the dedication of diners
When I stopped by the Shellback Tavern last Friday the weekend forecast was for rain, and I asked Rico if he was concerned about it. “Rain, not much, because people can stay under the canopies. The problem will be the wind.” By the time we finished dinner, the breeze had strengthened and was threatening to blow over the partitions between tables.
Over the next two days it got worse, with gusts to over 30 miles an hour on Sunday. I was surprised when I went by Shellback that afternoon and saw they were still open and had customers, because it seemed impossible that people would visit during the gale. Despite that the place was at least half full.
The wind problems were even worse at Hermosa’s Pier Plaza, where the wind blew sand straight from the beach into diners’ faces and it piled up in little dunes almost to the edge of Hermosa Avenue. The patio at Hennessey’s was deserted, as were most other places that had no shelter from the fierce gusts. I rescued a chair that was blowing away from Playa Hermosa Fish & Oyster, to the thanks of a server who was just starting to chase it. Eateries that were serving with paper plates and lightweight cups were trying various strategies to weigh them down, with little success, and some owners were preparing for a day with few customers. The usually upbeat Gianluca Zago of Saor Project was glumly typing on his phone when I stopped in. “I’m sending out emails with specials to go, because nobody is going to sit here today,” he mourned.
There were plenty of empty seats all around the plaza, but things were a bit better around the corner on Hermosa Avenue, which was more sheltered. This was relative, and the restaurants that had prepared for this eventuality had an advantage. At one place the pop-up canopies that were poorly secured were making the kind of motions that gave the Wright brothers ideas. At another row of three restaurants, two had removed the fabric covers from their dining areas leaving just the skeletal frames overhead.
“The people next door had a lot of problems with their canopies blowing away,” explained Willow, a server at Pedone’s. “We bolted ours down when we put them in, and they’ve been flapping a lot. They don’t seem to be in any danger of tearing, so we left them up.”
Canopies or not, there was hardly an empty chair to be seen even though it was a bit past the usual brunch and lunch hour. When I asked if that was typical, she replied, “I’m a little surprised that so many people came today, but we’ve had a good crowd. People have been stuck inside so long that they really miss being out. We might have to change some things, install some heaters, but if it keeps people happy, it’ll happen.”
A server at another restaurant, speaking anonymously because a manager wasn’t available to give permission to talk to the media, agreed. “People complain that every day is the same since the pandemic caused so much working from home, and this is a thing that still makes weekends special. For some people, a Sunday brunch is a ritual.”
At Simmzy’s in Manhattan every seat was taken, even at the somewhat exposed street seating. The umbrellas were folded, and General Manager Barry laughed ruefully when asked about it. “We had to chase a few down when they blew away. The dining deck has been most popular since we started serving there, but the last couple of days people have asked for the space that is more sheltered. Wind and rain have a way of changing people’s preferences. Still, we have a great following in the community, and people are willing to accept a breeze to come out here.”
Simmzy’s is one of the few places in downtown built with a covered and sheltered patio, which puts them in a better position than most of their competitors. The restaurants at Metlox Plaza have an even better situation and might have been built for this eventuality. The curtains that shield the dining patio on the north side of Nick’s were tied at the bottom and billowing like the sail of a square-rigger, but they surely helped mute the effect of the wind if not the noise. Around the corner at the tables facing the plaza, it was almost tranquil. The curtains were up at Petros too, though I found one of their plastic menus that had blown off of a table in the plaza. When I returned it the host at the front door thanked me and said, “That has been happening all day.”
It’s a measure of the dedication of local diners that at most of the restaurants where I stopped in seeking an interview, the staff was too busy to talk to me. The places right by the beach and in the most exposed locations were desolate, but elsewhere it might almost have been a normal day. It would be tempting fate to say that no weather, no matter how dire, will deter local diners, and that would surely be overstating the case. Still, there is certainly the desire to keep some elements of normal life and to relieve the sameness of days by enjoying a meal out, and that bodes well for restaurateurs who have been eyeing weather reports and wondering whether it’s worth investing in sturdy patio coverings and ropes to tie them down. ER
by Richard Foss