Boqueria indoor dining during COVID-19
Photos courtesy of Boqueria; Illustration by Maitane Romagosa

How NYC Restaurants Are Preparing for the Return of Indoor Dining

After six months of outdoor-only options, restaurateurs are getting ready with upgraded dining rooms and plenty of hand sanitizer.

The day that many in the hospitality industry have awaited with equal parts excitement and trepidation is finally here: As of Sept. 30, indoor dining in NYC is once again allowed, albeit with many strict regulations. Most notably, restaurants will have to adhere to a maximum of 25 percent capacity for indoor seats, but other major changes include mandatory closings at midnight, a moratorium on bar seating, stricter regulations regarding air filtration, ventilation, and purification, and of course, ample amounts of hand sanitizer.

For the industry, which already operates on razor-thin margins, there is no scenario in which reopening indoors is not costly. A survey conducted by the James Beard Foundation put the cost per restaurant at an average of $5,000 each month for safety modifications and other new protocols. And particularly for fine dining establishments, which pride themselves on—literally and figuratively—high-touch service, creating an atmosphere that is both welcoming and safe is a tricky calculus. But regardless of fears and costs, most restaurants are choosing to reopen. For some, this will mark the first time they are able to operate since the city’s initial shutdown in March. And all restaurants are facing the arrival of winter and colder temperatures, which will drive a portion of guests away from outdoor dining (and ideally toward indoors).

But that’s not to say there’s no positivity in this milestone. Take JP and Ellia Park, who own Korean small plates restaurant Atoboy and its sister spot, the lauded, fine-dining Atomix. The reopening marks the first time in six months they’ll be reunited with many of their staff. “It’s a deeply meaningful time,” says JP Park. “I believe that everyone who is in this industry is, in a sense, eager and excited, as it has been over half a year since we have been able to execute our work and our passions.”

Sukchae at Atomix
Sukchae at Atomix | Diane Kang

Of course, reopening a white tablecloth spot like Atomix can carry a steep financial cost. For that restaurant alone, the Parks estimate they’re spending around $10,000 on tasks like hiring and training new staff, buying PPE gear and tables that allow for social distancing, and creating new menu cards, a hallmark of the restaurant. And this doesn’t include all of the unforeseeable, but necessary, expenditures Park expects.

One particularly large expense that many restaurants are facing is installing new air filtration or purification systems to remove as many small particulates from the air as possible. The contemporary Italian restaurant Portale and upscale Swedish spot Aquavit are installing MERV-13 air filters in addition to various other systems, and NoHo Hospitality Group (which owns The Dutch, Lafayette, and Bar Primi among others) is upgrading their HVAC systems with specialized filtration. Globally inspired The Musket Room is using a NPBI (needlepoint bionic ionization) device to continuously filter the air in the room and neutralize unwanted pathogens. Scientific Fire Prevention, a company with expertise in restaurant fire prevention, is hoping their NPBI device will soon become standard in many restaurants in NYC. “We can facilitate installations in less than a day,” says co-CEO David Klein. “Once installed, the maintenance is next to nothing: no need for replacement parts like filters or UVC bulbs.” Industry heavy hitters like Le Bernardin have already signed on.

And at buzzy Korean steakhouse Cote, each of the tabletop grills has an individual exhaust that ejects air to the roof, rather than recirculating it. “The manufacturer shared that restaurants with this exhaust system have up to 6.6 times more air circulation compared to restaurants without them,” says Cote owner Simon Kim. Cote’s renovations were not limited to just the grill fans, either. “It was a lot of money, especially given the financial distress that we were put through the past seven months,” Kim says candidly. “The reopening of the interior is a massive undertaking considering the amount of labor, materials, and time involved. The improvements that we have made to the dining room involved many professionals, including our architects.”

Other restaurants, like the venerable Daniel, are focusing their efforts on more temporary changes: The Michelin-starred French spot is opening up a more casual pop-up dubbed Boulud Sur Mer as the restaurant transitions into indoor dining. “No one traveled to France this summer, so I felt that a journey to Provence will offer some respite from the many months of challenges we have all faced,” said chef Daniel Boulud in a statement. Since this is Daniel, expect elevated touches like uniforms sourced from Commes des Garcons PLAY and leafy wallpaper by Hermès. But the Provencal menu will be a much lower price-point: three-courses and $123 for indoor diners through the holiday season. The restaurant plans to return to its normal décor and traditional French offerings in early 2021.

And of course, it’s not only fine-dining spots that are making substantial changes to their interiors. Popular Spanish tapas spot Boqueria, which has four locations across the city, has spent much of the quarantine redesigning their interiors to be as safe and welcoming as possible. “Yes, there will be hand sanitizer and plexiglass, but there will also be beautiful plants filling the empty tables, good music playing, Cava chilling, and new paellas to try,” says owner Yann de Rochefort. In addition to protecting his staff and guests, de Rochefort is also leading the charge on protecting the restaurant industry. He was one of the co-creators of the nonprofit Safe Eats, which provides those in the industry with information on operating during COVID-19, discounts on PPE, and 24/7 on-call health and safety support.

Boqueria indoor dining setup during COVID-19
Courtesy of Boqueria

Restaurant consulting firms, like Empowered Hospitality, have also been a lifeline to help navigate the complex processes of reopening, which includes 16 pages of guidance from New York State. “We are helping our clients decide how to staff their restaurants at partial capacity, implement COVID-19 protocols, train employees on COVID-19 workplace safety, and provide guidance on Families First Coronavirus Response Act leaves and other new regulations,” says founder Sarah Diehl.

But even with all of these modifications, there is no guarantee that indoor dining will remain viable through the winter. The guidelines for the program will be reassessed by officials on Nov. 1; if infection rates in the city have not increased, restaurants may be permitted to go up to 50 percent capacity. But if rates are trending in the opposite direction, it’s very possible indoor dining will be banned for months. Moreover, in a recent survey conducted by the James Beard Foundation and the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC), independent restaurant owners reported needing nearly 60 percent capacity, at a minimum, to make reopening work for them financially. And with cases on the rise in New York in the last few weeks, the stability of indoor dining seems precarious.

Many in the industry see the only solution as increased support from the state and/or federal level. “At the end of the day, however, none of this may be enough to prevent the continued closure of NYC restaurants if further government assistance is not provided,” says Diehl.

Unfortunately, it’s a given that many restaurants will shutter permanently this fall and winter due to ballooning costs and a lack of customers. But the industry is famed for its determination, resilience, and creativity, all of which has been on full display during the pandemic. Organizations providing guidance and assistance have already proliferated, like ROAR (Relief Opportunities for All Restaurants), which gives financial aid to restaurant workers, and the IRC, who is lobbying for the passage of The RESTAURANTS Act.

And, of course, they have each other. "Comparing notes with fellow restaurateurs has been extremely helpful and cathartic over the past six months,” says The Musket Room owner Jennifer Vitagliano. “Whether supporting our neighborhood small business committee, New York Hospitality Coalition, or other restaurants, we have found a renewed sense of camaraderie and support in our peers. We’re all genuinely rooting for each other's survival and success.”

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Juliet Izon is a Thrillist contributor.