The outdoor dining sheds first appeared in summer 2020, like flowers in the dirt of the lockdown. In response to the Covid havoc wreaked on the dining industry, New York City launched its Open Restaurants Program, waiving Byzantine, longstanding regulations for outdoor dining and allowing eateries to set up extra sidewalk and curbside tables, including enclosures (with side ventilation) for comfort. At last count, more than 11,000 city restaurants have added outdoor tables.
It’s an adaptation to the pandemic—a way for diners to get together outdoors, following Covid guidelines—not unlike an architectural innovation born of the 1918 influenza outbreak: steam radiators that can heat apartments while the windows are open. As New Yorkers can attest, in many old buildings those uber-hot heaters have become permanent fixtures, remaining in use more than a century after the so-called Spanish flu abated.
But what of these new dining sheds? Like all too many things these days, they have sparked debate: Are they eyesores in the hood or saviors of the food-service industry? Can they coexist with all the bike lanes and cars and foot traffic that they circumvent? What happens when they’re abandoned by failed businesses? Do they represent revitalized city streets—adding a European-style al fresco flavor—or add to congestion, noise, and garbage?
Their existence hangs in the balance: While the current permits are slated to remain through 2022, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration is strategizing ways to make them permanent. As New Yorkers prepare for mayoral elections in November, residents, restaurateurs, and city officials face decisions on the future of these structures and how they might be regulated.
Meanwhile, the ubiquitous sheds are, design-wise, a very mixed bag. While some seem like ramshackle shanties, many are innovative additions to the cityscape, as seen in the following examples. I admit up front that, besides their aesthetic attractions, this list skews toward my own West Side stomping grounds and personal dining proclivities: Latin-based grab-n-go grub. Or sometimes, if you’re willing to sit, order and dine in (outside).
In what’s been a Theater District bar space for decades, this midtown eatery sports a railroad car theme. Dolly Varden was the name of the last passenger train to run up NYC’s West Side in the early 1900s. Before that, Dolly Varden was a brightly dressed, flirtatious Charles Dickens character who later came to symbolize the free-spirited ethos of the Roaring Twenties. (Could it be—although this is unverified—that Dolly Parton’s parents knew about this?) Oh, and the term also refers to an exotic species of Alaskan char fish.
As fate would have it, the Dolly Varden eatery launched shortly before the pandemic. After closing briefly during the lockdown and obtaining outdoor permits, the restaurant extended the railway theme with a sturdy enclosure that replicates a Dolly Varden coach car. “All said and done, with lighting, heaters, speakers, and decorations, the installation cost roughly $25,000,” says manager Patrick Schmidt. “Outdoor dining has allowed us to provide options for guests who may have been hesitant to dine out otherwise.”
Meanwhile, Dolly Varden enjoys a new street life, right off Broadway. “It kind of has a dual meaning to it,” says manager Michelle Guan. “Dolly was feisty and a bit raunchy, and she signified the time of the ’20s. That’s what we want to evoke. We want to stir the pot, and we want to be new and be seen.” Sometimes a little post-pandemic creativity goes a long way.
I remember well when Covid fell: This favorite bar and bistro near my home shut down for a couple of months, then opened briefly as a “to go” operation with little traffic, then shuttered again. One night while walking my dog, I bumped into David Arias, the proprietor, who told me it was economically better to simply stay closed “for now.” When spring 2020 brought warmer weather, Bodega 88 reopened with its regular outdoor sidewalk seating, and soon after that the near-block-long, spacious shed arrived. “It’s probably safe to say that it saved the business,” Arias says. “It added so much capacity, and it gave everybody a way to be outdoors, safe, and comfortable.”
Arias credits the shed’s outsize capacity to his neighbors’ generosity. “There are no other restaurants on this block, and my neighbors were kind enough—knowing the stress we were under—to say, ‘Take whatever space you can.’” He supports the plan to make dining sheds permanent, but adds, “It would behoove the city if we were to make a lot of these structures against the buildings on the sidewalks, and then we create the bike lanes on the other side.” He notes the danger of speeding bikes (especially motorized ones) between diners and servers. His venue hasn’t had accidents, Arias notes, “but it’s a matter of time.” His message to bikers: “Respect the rules.”
Who wouldn’t want to dine under a roof-bound moose in the city? Spaghetti Tavern came about when a couple of Aussies, Jason Scott and Robert Marchetti, decided to create an homage to Spaghetti Westerns, taking over a well-worn Irish bar space in March 2021. “They had this idea of opening up a Country-and-Western bar because they’re fans of the music genre, and they both come from Italian restaurants,” explains Robert Wilson, executive chef. “That’s why we serve spaghetti. And they went for the Western theme, so that’s where the animals and pictures and stuff came in.” He’s referencing the eclectic blend of taxidermy, landscape paintings, and classic C&W album covers.
Outdoors, underneath the plastic moose, the rustic artwork is subject to the elements. “I’ve already replaced one picture from water damage,” Wilson notes. “We have a couple more in the basement—we can just tack one up if another one gets ruined.” Meanwhile, the restaurant sells a lot of its signature dish: pasta in a bag. “It’s based on how they used to sell it as take-out food in Sicily,” Wilson says. “When the food arrives on the table, it comes in a ceramic bowl in the paper bag. When you open it, the smell is concentrated, and it comes out into your face. It adds to the experience.”
This midtown eatery’s name might be laughable—like a two-bit cafe’s attempt to be taken seriously—if it weren’t so apt and serious. Launched in early 2020 by the Quality Branded franchise, Quality Bistro sports an interior with a lavish 30-seat bar and several elegant rooms, plus a high-end French menu to match. (I haven’t tried the steaks yet; grant me a $50 and I could.)
Outdoors, the enclosures include fans, heaters, curtains for the elements, and topiary creations out front and encircling the sheds themselves. “They did a great job of preparing for whatever weather comes around—we can seat those in a torrential downpour as well,” says manager Brett Buehler. “Our waiters have raincoats they use, and huge umbrellas. So it’s quite a dance to get everything hot to the tables, but they pull it off.” The outdoor area adds about 145 seats to the restaurant’s capacity. “It helps the flow of service because it gives people options,” Buehler says. “I’ve heard numbers to the effect that it costs about $30,000 a month to have the outdoor set up like that—but this is a restaurant where some nights we make over $70,000, so the cost seems minimal.”
I recently compiled a roundup of great NYC breakfast tacos (almost an oxymoron?), and Playa Betty’s made the grade with its delectable egg, potato, steak, and migas–based tacos. Offering Cal-Mex fare with a surf-and-sun decor, the eatery was launched in 2015 by owners Tom Wilson and Eugene Ashe. “The theme was their vision: like a California beach in the middle of the city,” says host Manfredo Valdez. “The outdoor shed is an extension of the decor. So when people walk by they think, ‘OK, this looks like a beach.’ It throws them off in a good way.”
With its takeout service, Playa Betty’s operated throughout the Covid lockdown; it quickly built its outdoor shell when the city allowed it. “We’re around the corner from The Beacon Theater,” Valdez says, “so especially on weekends when people come out, that crowd will typically look for a place to sit down and eat while they wait for the show to start. We specialize in drinks and food that goes with them. This gives us lots more space to sit people outside.”
Valdez cites a recent crowd that showed up for the premiere of the Sopranos prequel—The Many Saints of Newark—at the Beacon, where cast members entered the theater right next to the restaurant. “They closed off the whole block, and all the stars were out there taking pictures,” Valdez recalls. “Everyone wanted to sit outside so they could see the red carpet event. Suddenly our outdoor shed was the hottest seat in town.”
All photos by the author except where noted.