As New York City hosts a Restaurant Week like no other, Cuomo suggests indoor dining could soon return

As New York City hosts a Restaurant Week like no other, Cuomo suggests indoor dining could soon return

Even as New York City’s economically battered restaurant industry anxiously awaits news on the return of indoor dining, Restaurant Week is back, bringing with it a small sense of pre-pandemic normalcy, albeit with new safety precautions in place.

Now in its 29th year, Restaurant Week has become a staple in the city’s food world, with eateries across the city offering up special prix fixe menus, usually at prices lower than the rest of their high-end offerings. This year, all lunch and dinner menus for restaurant week will run at lower prices than usual, at $20.21 apiece, and will be available as takeout and delivery options instead of the usual dine-in experience.

“Given the unpredictability of what was going to happen with restaurants this time of year, it became evident to us that we had to adapt to the current times,” said Chris Heywood, executive vice president of global communications for NYC & Company, the New York City tourism organization that puts on the event each year. “We made the decision to change this to a takeout and delivery program primarily. And the price point is less expensive than some of our other prix fixe offerings for restaurant week.”

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After having been on hiatus since the first lockdowns in March, indoor dining returned in New York City at 25% capacity at the end of September, but was shut down again in early December amid rising COVID-19 cases.

This year’s Restaurant Week unexpectedly coincided with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s statement on Wednesday that a plan for reopening indoor dining in New York City, likely at 25% capacity, may be announced by the end of this week. (Following a court ruling, Cuomo loosened indoor dining rules for most of the state earlier in January but kept restrictions in place in New York City, which is under separate regulations, leading to mounting frustration in the industry.)

“We’ll be waiting on the final details to see what it ultimately means, but it’s encouraging,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance. “New York City restaurants have been shut down completely for indoor dining, but restaurants throughout the rest of New York state have been open for 50% occupancy in areas where they have higher infection and hospitalization rates than New York City. We need to be treated equitably and have standards applied equitably.”

As for the restaurants themselves, in addition to a steady stream of closures, more than 140,000 jobs have been lost over the course of the past year, said Rigie, with 11,000 lost in the past month alone.

“It’s a brutal time for the city’s restaurant industry, with cold weather making outdoor dining less attractive and the second shutdown of indoor dining,” Rigie added.

“I just want to have the ability to sit 25 people inside,” said Veselka co-owner Jason Birchard. “I’m not going to get rich on it, but that would help. And people do want to sit inside.”

With its takeout-focused program, this year’s Restaurant Week is offering something of a middle ground and has garnered record participation from restaurants across the city, Heywood said.

“We generally don’t participate because we already have a really approachable price point,” said Adam Rosenbaum, CEO of The Meatball Shop. “Now, [the prix fixe menu] is offering value, obviously, but it’s more about supporting the restaurant community, banding together to create some sense of normalcy and say to the rest of the city, ‘Hey, we’re still open, and we stand together.’”

In addition to closures, the city’s restaurants have struggled to keep up with frequently-changing safety regulations, leading a group of Brooklyn bars and eateries to file a lawsuit against Cuomo earlier in January.

“Outdoor dining is kind of useless,” Rosenbaum said. “People have spent tens of thousands of dollars building [outdoor dining structures], and I know from some of them they’re not recouping those costs. The cost to do it and value and return on investment just seems not worth it.” 

This week also coincides with the coldest temperatures the city has seen so far this winter, with a wind chill near zero expected on Friday and a possible winter storm arriving on Monday.

New Yorkers’ appetite for restaurants has remained resilient, however, with strong demand for delivery options, and in many customers braving inclement weather for the chance to have drinks or dinner outside. (Some Restaurant Week patrons are also opting to stay and eat their “takeout” meals at outdoor dining tables, Birchard said.)

“Overall, people really want to leave the house,” said Allison Arevalo, founder of Pasta Louise in Park Slope, Brooklyn. “There will be construction going on outside, it’s freezing and people are out eating.”

Restaurant Week, which was set to run from Jan. 25-31st, but which most restaurants have now opted to extend through Feb. 7, is also driving a new customer base to consider restaurants they may not have previously ordered from.

“Generally 65% to 70% of our customers are repeat customers, and [Tuesday], it was split 50/50,” Arvelo said. “It’s definitely good for the bottom line. The more sales that come in, the more people get exposed to your restaurant.”

But even with a boost from increased deliveries and the potential return of indoor dining, the road to recovery for the city’s restaurants will be long, and many are already “teetering on the edge of survival,” Rigie said.

“We’re urging people if they can, to eat out as much as possible,” Rigie said. “Get takeout or delivery, and make sure you tip well. Every dollar is so important.”

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