It’s been almost one year since the COVID-19 pandemic upended the relationship New Yorkers once had with their favorite restaurants and bars. The weekend before the state mandated the shutdown of indoor dining on March 16 was the last time “going out” — remember that? — resembled anything from the Before Times. Face coverings, temperature checks, geodesic domes posing as outdoor dining structures, contact tracing, and bottles of hand sanitizer next to salt and peppers shakers are now the norm.
In the days leading up to the closure, however, many people still dined out without fully comprehending the magnitude of the coronavirus. While there certainly was a level of trepidation, some saw the weekend as a chance for one more hurrah. After all, many assumed the virus was going to be over in a few weeks or a few months, right? Of course, the uncertainty skyrocketed in the coming weeks, but for a few nights, the city’s chefs kept their dining rooms open, bartenders poured another drink on the house, drag queens cracked another joke, and New Yorkers ate and drank in a way that they haven’t been able to since. Here, we’ve compiled accounts by six people, from diners to cautious residents who understood the potential severity of COVID-19 early on to restaurant owners who saw their dining rooms go dark.
As a machine-learning engineer working for a company that harvested and analyzed internet searches and trends from across the globe, Greenpoint resident Riley Goodside had been aware of the situation developing in Wuhan since late 2019. But it wasn’t until January that a surge of tweets about toilet paper shortages in Japan tipped him off to just how serious the problem could become. “That’s around the time I started buying up toilet paper,” says Goodside. “That lasted me most of 2020.”
The first cases arrived in New York in early March, and they quickly multiplied. Restaurants were limited to 50 percent capacity by the weekend of March 14, and although revenues had taken a real hit, there was no shortage of people out on the town on Saturday night. “My concern was that people were not freaked out about this enough,” says Goodside.
He decided to take action to bring awareness to the severity of the situation.
Early Sunday morning, Goodside haphazardly taped printer paper onto an old UPS shipping envelope and made a sign, with one side reading “STAY AT HOME” and “CANCEL BRUNCH” on the reverse. Based on the best practices that he had read about in China and Japan, he also put on a face mask — almost unheard of at the time in the United States outside of hospital settings. “We needed to dispel the stigma of wearing a mask,” says Goodside. “I wanted to sell it with humor. You can’t go outside and just start scolding people.”
Standing at the intersection of Bedford Avenue and Lorimer Street, Goodside held up his sign with the popular brunch spot Five Leaves just a couple yards away. Passersby snapped photos of his outfit, which included black latex gloves and safety goggles. Many people laughed.
But Goodside’s demonstration would prove prescient: That evening, it was announced that New York City’s dining rooms would shutter indefinitely. And just a few weeks later, the CDC reversed its position on face masks and advised that they would be instrumental in the fight against COVID-19. — Gary He, contributing photographer
Nahid Ahmed recalls the last dinner on March 12. The buzz surrounding the novel coronavirus started weeks before, says the chef and co-owner of the tasting-menu-only restaurant Luthun in the East Village, but there was still an air of uncertainty about what it meant for restaurants. As state and city officials ramped up restrictions — canceling large gatherings and reducing dining room capacity — Ahmed started noticing more regulars booking reservations.
The restaurant’s most loyal customers filled the 29-seat dining room, the staff poured complimentary glasses of Champagne and dessert wine. Many regulars had also shown up to support Ahmed, whose mentor Gray Kunz, the celebrated fine dining chef, died the week before. On this last night, guests and staffers extended their conversations beyond the typical pleasantries.
“They tried to come one last time,” says Ahmed. “It was business as usual in some ways and some ways not. People were trying to enjoy themselves, but you could tell some people were worried.”
Many of the restaurant’s older customers stayed home in the weeks leading to the shutdown, but the last dinner service before March 16 was still busy as diners ordered six- or 10-course meals. For a restaurant that had steadily built up a following, it felt promising to have enough momentum to fill a dining room despite the disturbing developments of the coronavirus, Ahmed says. “I thought it would be over soon, and we would open two weeks later.” — Bao Ong, Eater NY editor
A lifetime ago, in early 2020, the news dominating the NYC restaurant scene was the highly-anticipated revival of 125-year-old Brooklyn institution Gage & Tollner. Everybody was talking about it: Outlets including Eater, the New York Times, and Grub Street ran coverage of the planned opening. TV network CBS filmed a segment set to air on Sunday, March 15, the same day that the restaurant was planning to open. The stunning, renovated dining room was booked out with over 2,000 reservations through April. The kitchen was stocked with about $ 70,000 worth of food inventory. It was a years-in-the-making moment of accomplishment for Brooklyn restaurateurs Sohui Kim, Ben Schneider, St. John Frizell, and their team.
In the days leading up to the opening, the restaurant was busy hosting investor dinners and a few days of unofficial service to help the team find their rhythm on the floor. By Friday, March 13, diners were canceling their plans, Kim says. For those who came that night, the restaurant put out bottles of hand sanitizer, nobody shook hands, and diners tried to maintain some distance from one another.
On Saturday morning, “we woke up to a different world,” Kim says. Venues had been banned from operating at full capacity. Tensions skyrocketed over the increasingly relevant issue of overcrowding in restaurants and bars. By the afternoon, Kim and business partner and husband Ben Schneider made the decision to close down all of their restaurants. They broke the news to their staff at Gowanus Korean spot Insa, then traveled to the Good Fork in Red Hook, and finally gathered with the team at Gage & Tollner to call off the opening. Pastry chef Caroline Schiff and kitchen manager Rigo Vazquez made a cheesy baked pasta for one last family meal. “I felt like I was shot with a stun gun,” Kim says. “You’re moving around and making these decisions and hoping that you were doing the right thing.”
On Monday, every restaurant and bar in the city was ordered to shut down their dining rooms. Gage & Tollner remained closed to the public for almost an additional year, just recently reopening in February for takeout and delivery. Even with the curtailed opening, there is a buzz of anticipation: Kim has witnessed customers drive to downtown Brooklyn just to steal a glimpse of the dining room when they pick up their takeout orders.
Not being able to open Gage & Tollner last year “felt like running a marathon and you’re told you can’t run the last two miles,” Kim says. Now, much of the team is getting vaccinated and Gage & Tollner plans to reopen soon for indoor dining at 35 percent capacity. “Let’s do this,” Kim says. “Let’s run the last two miles and finish this marathon.” — Erika Adams, Eater NY reporter
Less than a month before the shutdown, Horrorchata — one of NYC’s preeminent drag queens — was performing a show at the Whitney Museum. “People were already talking about COVID,” she recalls, adding that she felt a sense of dread in the audience for what was to come. And it wasn’t just the Whitney. With each passing week, Horrorchata recalls the crowds dwindling at each of the bars and clubs where she was performing. As she looked to the month of March, her calendar was packed. She had shows nearly every night of the week and was getting ready to take her renowned show Bushwig — one of the world’s biggest drag shows — to South by Southwest for the very first time. But while Horrorchata had to make a heartbreaking decision about whether she would keep going, it was also somewhat of a no-brainer, she says. “Bitch, I knew something was coming,” she says. “I kept telling everyone the world is going to shut down. Maybe I’m just a paranoid queen.”
Horrorchata had already been wearing a mask in the month prior to the shutdown; while traveling on the subway, while shopping at the grocery store. She recalls getting strange looks, but she says she’s glad she followed her gut now. The weekend before the official citywide shutdown on March 16, Horrorchata was set to host a Be Cute event, a popular queer dance party she organizes that attracts hundreds of revelers regularly. That particular weekend, she was expecting between 300 and 400 people, she recalls. And while some of her friends were still eager to go out and party, Horrorchata says she felt like canceling was the responsible thing to do. She recalls staying at home all of that weekend nervous about what the next few weeks might bring, but she was certain that things weren’t going back to normal anytime soon. South by Southwest was canceled shortly after, and as bars shuttered, drag queens increasingly turned to the internet to keep some sort of connection and a sense of community alive. Bushwig turns 10 this year, and Horrorchata has tentatively scheduled the event for this coming November, but she’s still not sure she will go forward with it because of the uncertainties that remain around the virus. “I’m just taking it month by month right now.” — Tanay Warerkar, Eater NY reporter
Edith Spanoudakis and her husband, Evangelos, have been operating a street food cart for more than 25 years now. Their spot for the past several years has been in front of the Morgan Stanley headquarters at Broadway and West 48th Street, and among the building’s workers, the couple’s cart has become a go-to for bagels, coffee, and a host of breakfast pastries. But come early March, those regulars stopped showing up, Spanoudakis says. Business dropped overnight as Midtown office workers started working from home. Initially, sales dipped by 50 percent, she says, but within days, they had precipitated further to a 75 percent decrease.
Still, the Spanoudakises persevered. The couple’s livelihood depended on the truck, so despite the shutdown on March 16, they returned to their spot at Broadway and West 48th Street, hopeful that things might improve. By Friday that week, things had only gotten worse, and the couple’s only son was worried about their safety, especially considering the fact that both Edith and Evangelos are in their late 60s. Friday would end up being the last day they worked in months. “We thought maybe it would be a month, maybe two months at most,” says Spanoudakis. “Before we knew it, nearly a year had gone by.” Unlike restaurants that partly benefited from outdoor dining over the summer, street food vendors operating in areas like Midtown and the Financial District didn’t see a business uptick, as most officegoers continued to stay at home, and vendors chose to stay away from these previously high-traffic areas.
There’s still a lot of uncertainty about when office workers might return, but Spanoudakis is optimistic. The couple returned to the spot in early February after Morgan Stanley paid them a fixed amount to provide breakfast to staffers who wanted it. Spanoudakis says their current customer base is only a fraction of the number of people who showed up before the pandemic, but she says things are looking up. The couple are set to get their first shot of the vaccine on April 3, and she’s hopeful people will gradually make a return to places like Times Square. — Tanay Warerkar, Eater NY reporter
When Teerawong “Yo” Nanthavatsiri came back to New York City in early March from a trip to his native Thailand, he had already gotten a sneak peek of things to come. Countries throughout Asia had started implementing lockdown measures because of the rapidly spreading coronavirus, people wore face coverings in public, and some countries enforced travel bans. “I could feel that the shutdown was coming,” says Nanthavatsiri, the chef and co-owner of Pinto Garden, a Thai restaurant in the West Village. “I didn’t know how people would handle it because we never experienced this kind of thing before.” He knew New Yorkers were concerned when cancellations for bridal showers, birthday parties, and dinner rehearsals — often popular in the restaurant’s back patio atrium — started rolling in for March and April. The foot traffic had also slowed down along West 10th Street, but on the weekend before the indoor dining ban took effect, Pinto’s most loyal customers still showed up. One couple, who typically order the crab fried rice and seared duck breast, brought their own silverware in plastic bags and a bottle of hand sanitizer spray. “I was joking, ‘Did they bring their own plates as well?’” Nanthavatsiri recalls. “They still wanted to lead as normal a life as possible, but they didn’t know what they could do or couldn’t. Nobody did. Everyone was just trying their best.” — Bao Ong, Eater NY editor