Al Fresco Architecture: How New York’s Streets Have Been Transformed for Outdoor Dining

While the pandemic persists, New Yorkers are enjoying the chance to experience their favorite restaurants in innovative outdoor environments.

Pat Finn Pat Finn

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New York City isn’t Paris. Here, sidewalk dining has historically meant a slice of pizza on a bench. Ambience was a spot where the pigeons stayed away.

That all changed this June. Phase 2 of the city’s re-opening plan allowed outdoor dining while still prohibiting indoor seating. Restaurants that had been hanging on with only take out and delivery for the past three months moved quickly to create outdoor seating environments for their customers. And while the solutions are makeshift — and mostly temporary — each one reflects a degree of ingenuity worthy of New York.

Diners practicing social distancing in the backyard of The Bonnie in Queens; Photo via Eater New York

“Traditionally, the city’s sidewalk cafes tended to be dull to look at, crowded rows of tables hemmed in by plain metal railings. The new ones are more expressive,” explained Pete Wells in The New York Times. “Governed by two emergency programs meant to let restaurants earn some money until indoor dining can resume, these structures follow a set of rules for keeping the public safe from the coronavirus and, when the seating is placed in parking spaces, from passing cars. Within and around these rules, however, creativity blossomed.”

Planning for this change all started in early May, when the commissioner of New York’s Transportation Department, Polly Trottenberg, announced that the city was looking into ways to expedite permits for restaurants, allowing them to extend their outdoor seating into sidewalks and parking spots. Fast-tracking this process was important to the city’s restaurant industry, which had suffered a devastating decline in revenue during the months of lockdown.

Soon after the permit announcement, Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced 12 additional miles of street closures, including three full blocks in the restaurant-heavy Meatpacking District.

David Rockwell’s adaptable module for outdoor dining; drawings courtesy of Rockwell Group

Architectural designer David Rockwell was prepared for this news. Along with the New York City Hospitality Alliance, Rockwell designed a modular outdoor dining system that meets social distancing specifications. Called DineOut NYC, the system was designed pro-bono and is available to any restaurant that wishes to use it.

“The plans, based on a kit-like module, take into account social distancing space between tables, as well as all-important sanitation stations,” explained Kate Kader in Bloomberg. “They allow for varying numbers of seats, and include sidewalk fencing and planter benches to create a sense of separation.”

Prospective sketch of outdoor dining at Melba’s; rendering courtesy of Rockwell Group

Melba’s Restaurant, an iconic neighborhood spot in Harlem, was the first to adopt Rockwell’s prototype. The platforms and barriers Rockwell proposes are easy for restaurants to quickly build themselves.

The prototype also leaves room for creativity, and many New York restaurants have added decorative flourishes of their own, including live plants, string lights, and unique awnings that provide a festive atmosphere.

Baby Brasa brings “Miami Style” to the streets of New York City; Photo by Karsen Moran via The New York Times

Take Baby Brasa in Greenwich Village. The restaurant has filled a long stretch of seventh avenue with palm trees and massive inflatable pink flamingos. Eduardo Trejo, a manager, ordered the birds to give the street a little “Miami style.”

Evelina in Fort Greene, Brooklyn; Photo by Karsten Moran via The New York Times.

Plants are key to the ambience outside Evelina in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Managing partner Giuseppe de Francisi wanted to replicate the feel of his home village in Italy, so he planted peppers and other foods in boxes outside the restaurants. In between the tables he put planters full of tall bamboo spires, providing a delicate segmentation of the space. “You are surrounded by nature,” Mr. de Francisci said. “You don’t think you are in the street.”

DIY barriers at Sea Witch in South Slope, Brooklyn; Photo by Karsten Moran via The New York Times

Sea Witch, in South Slope Brooklyn, found a cheaper way to take advantage of curbside dining. Instead of customized barriers, owner Andy Hawking enclosed his tables with 18-inch-thick stacks of cinder blocks. Along with a canopy purchased on Amazon and striped reflective poles from a local safety equipment store, the cinder blocks contribute to an overall DIY aesthetic that feels very Brooklyn.

Pink Sparrow, a Brooklyn design firm, offers readymade planter barriers; Photo via Greenpointers

Various manufacturers have stepped up and begun offering readymade barriers to help restaurants adapt as quickly as possible. Pink Sparrow of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is notable in this regard. Their adaptable planter barriers can be seen across the five boroughs.

Time will tell whether outdoor dining will remain a major part of life in the Big Apple once the pandemic is behind us. For now, though, New Yorkers are enjoying the chance to experience their favorite restaurants once again in innovative outdoor environments.

Special thanks to Pete Wells of the New York Times, whose reporting was an important resource for this piece. Architects: Showcase your next project through Architizer and sign up for our inspirational newsletter.

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