On Wednesday, for the first time in over half a year, I sat down inside a restaurant and ate a meal. Actually, I did it three times, at three very different restaurants, over the course of about five hours. My order was the same at each stop—a cheeseburger—but the setup and vibes varied considerably along the way, first at Pearl Diner, a small, old-school joint in the Financial District; then at Pastis, a sprawling beautiful-people hangout in the Meatpacking; and finally at Nowon, a hip Korean party spot in the East Village. 

Overall, the restaurants where I ate, and the many others into which I popped my head during my tour, were operating well under the mandated 25% capacity. In fact, most dining rooms everywhere remained nearly empty even as their outdoor space filled up, perhaps not surprising given the exceptionally pleasant weather yesterday evening, not to mention the whole fear of catching a terrible contagious disease thing. 

Each place I entered yesterday took my temperature upon arrival (though the efficacy of this step is suspect when the thermometer reads 83.1, as mine did at Pearl), and my info for contact tracing in case that became necessary. Other familiar pandemic protocols were in evidence as well, including menus via QR codes, sanitizer at every table, masks required whenever moving about the space. It felt reasonably safe to sit and eat inside these mostly empty rooms, but it could also be a little depressing, and somewhat unnecessary on such a lovely evening. 

A photo inside Pearl Diner

Pearl Diner

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Pearl Diner
Scott Lynch/Gothamist

In some ways eating inside at Pearl Diner made the most sense. One of the last freestanding diners in the city, the family-owned Pearl has been serving breakfast and lunch in the Financial District for nearly 60 years, and this sort of food tastes best when eaten right off the grill in a beat-up old booth. Really, my Cheeseburger and Curly Fries were terrific, and the owner's father was more than happy to keep me company while I wolfed it all down, ranting from across the room about what he believes is the staggering failure of our city and state's leadership during the pandemic. 

A photo of Nowon

Nowon

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Nowon
Scott Lynch/Gothamist

Eating at Nowon is always a pleasure, food-wise—my double patty Dry-Aged Steak Burger with Kimchi Sauce was as excellent as ever—and even with only one other table occupied the small room didn't feel so lonely. The good, loud music helped, and chef and owner Jae Lee is an amiable host, even masked up in a pandemic. Plus, Lee has a nice curbside setup out on East 6th Street, and so he can afford to be cautious about having his guests come in. Keep this place in mind for the next rainy (or first freezing cold) night.  

A photo of Pastis

Pastis

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Pastis
Scott Lynch/Gothamist

Pastis on the other hand, Keith McNally and Stephen Starr's faux-retro bistro megahit in the Meatpacking District, relies on the energy of its rooms for much of its appeal. The large curbside dining area on Gansevoort still affords some good people watching, but sitting almost alone inside, munching on a lackluster Cheeseburger à l’Américaine and sharing the air with an army of staffers, just doesn't feel worth it. And if there were more diners in here, laughing and shouting (it can be an extremely loud restaurant) and having fun? Yeah, that sounds much worse. 

Somewhat counterintuitively then, it's possible that, while operating with reduced capacities, the city's smaller, more intimate restaurants will feel safer and more comfortable than their larger counterparts. Either way, it's also important to repeat here that indoor dining remains a potentially risky activity, and a couple of weeks ago the CDC said that adults who tested positive for the coronavirus were about twice as likely to have dined at a restaurant within a two-week period prior to becoming sick. So despite my generally positive experience on day one of dining in again, I will likely keep eating outside for as long as possible into the fall and winter.