As winter approaches, is outdoor dining still fun?
On Monday evening I sat down for dinner at Buvette, Jody Williams's popular French bistro in the West Village and a longtime go-to of mine in the area. I was actually outside of Buvette, of course, at a table set up on the Grove Street sidewalk, near (but not directly under) the overhead electric heaters trying their best to warm the semi-enclosed curbside dining area.
My phone told me it was 43 degrees out and, thanks to daylight saving time ending, it was dark as deep night at 5:30 p.m. My metal chair was freezing. I had on three layers under my most wintery coat, along with gloves and a hat. It felt a long way from those beautiful nights of August and September, when the astonishing explosion of outdoor dining turned the city into an accidental block party.
Not that Buvette, nor its helpful, heavily bundled staff, were in any way to blame for the situation. Heck, if I had been able to snag a spot directly under a heater I might have even taken off my gloves and hat! And as I settled into the circumstances, I grew more accepting of this new eating-while-cold reality. I was properly dressed for at least a couple of hours of outdoor fun. It wasn't really so bad, was it?
Especially once the food arrived. I ordered my two Buvette usuals, the Anchioade Tartine (good bread, a crazy amount of great butter, anchovies, capers), and Williams's superb Cassoulet (duck, pig, beans), and both were perfect for the moment: warm, filling, packed with fat and flavor. I didn't linger—my only companion was an empty chair—but I probably could have. I felt comfortable, even energized, and my faith renewed that outdoor dining could survive the winter.
Next stop was a few blocks over on Carmine Street, to grab a five-piece temaki set at Nami Nori and see how not-hot food went down on a cold night. A couple of weeks ago I was told that propane heaters were on their way here, to cozy up the restaurant's extensive curbside dining room, but, alas, there was still nothing in place. They did give me an oven-warmed rock at the start of things, however, which felt nice in my hands.
Overall, eating sushi on the street made for a less satisfying experience than wolfing down a bowl of warm, thick stew. Not that the Nami Nori's food wasn't good—in particular, the Spicy Sea Bass and X.O. Scallop taco-like temakis were great—but it seemed kind of silly to be here at all, spending this kind of money on a quick, cold meal. Like I'd rather just be cooking up something at home.
That said, at Nami Nori, as at Buvette, small groups of young people and date-night couples were gathered at nearly every available outdoor table, even in the chill, even in the early dark, even on a Monday. These were social meals, and since eating out is still pretty much the only thing we can do together, these meeting spots seem a little poised to weather the... weather.
In contrast, the outdoor dining areas at the more utilitarian restaurants in the neighborhood, spontaneous spots that you may not plan a night around, were largely empty. I fear these restaurants will have a hard time enticing passersby, even with heaters, as the temperature keeps dropping.