West Side Rag » How an out-of-work tour guide created a book about the streets of New York

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Posted on December 1, 2021 at 5:17 p.m. by West Side Rag

The author of the “park” of Rancho Tequileria.

By Peggy Taylor

I love sidewalk cafes. So last year when Covid closed indoor restaurants and Mayor de Blasio expanded outdoor restaurants under the Open Restaurants program, I inwardly jumped for joy and hoped that New York would become Paris -on-the-Hudson. After college, I had spent a decade in Paris touring sidewalk cafes, so the idea that they might flourish here delighted me to no end. Yes, I knew it would be born out of tragedy, but I couldn’t wait for it to happen.

In addition to shutting down the restaurant industry, the pandemic devastated the tourism industry, so as a New York City tour guide specializing in Harlem Gospel and Jazz tours, I quickly found myself out of work. Like many West Siders, I stayed close to home and only ventured out to run errands and walk around Central Park. Then in June 2020, following the launch of Open Restaurants, I overcame my fear of public transport and decided to explore the city and document our new outdoor dining scene. Did the City really allow restaurants to set up on sidewalks and roads? under street trees and scaffolding sheds; on hatches and manhole covers? A restaurant, Nice Matin, even ended up on the ground floor of a homeless shelter.

Nice Matin four months ago.

I decided to refer to these outdoor facilities as “streeteries”, as the media had begun to call them (exact origin unknown). I was convinced that a photo book of streeteries would be of historical interest, since we dined at places we had never dined before and would probably never dine again. I mostly explored Manhattan, but I also visited the Bronx and Queens. I’ve done it in summer, fall and winter, in heat, cold, snow and rain.

So what did I find? The streets were delightfully bustling as restaurateurs treated us to a dizzying array of yurts, cabins, bubbles, faux Swiss chalets and tents adorned with plastic chandeliers. Some streets were upscale and stylish, but many were run down and ugly. Critics called the horrors “shacks,” “favellas,” and “slums,” but New Yorkers still flocked there, wondering why we hadn’t always dined this way. Even people who had fled to the Hamptons returned for a day of street food only to experience the novelty. No more drinking beer in black saloons. We were all outside now, eating and drinking in the light.

We were also eating and drinking closer to traffic than ever before. Incredibly, we found ourselves dining on streets inches from sanitation trucks, cement mixers, car transporters and tractor-trailers rumbling in front of our necks. “I can’t believe I’m so close to this fire truck that I can talk to the driver,” a bruncher told Nice Matin. Another gushed about how European it all felt. “I feel like I’m in Paris!”

First iteration of Harvest Kitchen.

Second iteration of Harvest Kitchen

Third iteration of Harvest Kitchen.

One of the things that struck me was how often the streets changed. Restaurateurs were constantly innovating, or as one put it, “We threw stuff against the wall and went with what stuck.” For example, early in the pandemic, the Harvest Kitchen on Columbus Avenue placed chairs and tables between car and bike lanes, “protected” only by stanchions and yellow police tape. But soon this street was replaced by a tent with a three-sided wooden fence acting as a planter. Later it became what we see today with a hardwood floor, plastic curtains and a balustrade overflowing with flowers.

Jean-Georges at 1 Central Park West made us dine in style with his cozy winter ski cabins complete with carpets, cushioned banquettes, portable heaters and air purifiers. Some people complained that these cabins weren’t al fresco dining, and I questioned them too at first, but when I saw their air purifier and wall and roof hatches that opened easily for the fresh air, I fell in love with them. After having dinner in one, I didn’t want to go home.

Cafe du Soleil.

Another neighborhood street, Café du Soleil, at 104th and Broadway, delighted me with its zippered plastic bubbles reserved only for families or people who knew each other.

Another favorite of mine was Rancho Tequileria at 95th and Amsterdam whose miniature bright red, gold and orange pennants lifted my spirits. It was a much-needed antidote to the all-black streets that were all too common. Their black barriers, black chairs, black tables, black signage irritated me. How to choose black for a café terrace? Hasn’t the pandemic been depressing enough?

Il Violino’s Easter House.

Then there was the neighborhood hit, Il Violino, on Columbus and 68th, whose streets changed with the seasons: Christmas Cottage (with toy soldiers and candy canes); Spring Cottage (tulips and floral wreaths); Easter Cottage (Mr. and Mrs. Rabbit, with Easter eggs and carrots.)

I had a bullet capturing it all.

But not everyone liked streeteries. Reviewers complained they were too loud; drivers complain about lost parking spaces; pedestrians clung to wasted space on the sidewalk. “It’s not Paris!” fumed the others. Outdoor diners, they said, would be accosted by homeless people, roughed up by vagabonds; the streets would invite vandals, arsonists and rats and be rammed by uncontrollable drivers. “Would you like a Lyft in your soup?” growled a critic. Many of these things did happen, but not to the point of forcing the City to abandon the program.

Even today, a vocal minority demands the end of the program. They cite noise, dirt and rats as problems, but as one restaurateur countered, “New York had noise, dirt and rats before Covid.” Recent surveys show that the majority of New Yorkers love the streets, which is why many restaurants are keeping their bubbles, shacks and cabins even as indoor dining resumes. The Les Verts ski chalets on the cover of my book are back this winter, as are Jean-Georges’ chalets. Bergdorf Goodman has announced that its sidewalk cafe, B&G on Fifth, will return next spring.

Given their popularity, streeteries are clearly here to stay, and our ongoing battle with the Delta variant and now Omicron will ensure their continued existence. It will be fine with me.

The result of Peggy Taylor’s efforts is a book of photographs showcasing an array of outdoor dining setups in New York City. Corn Streeteries: pandemic outdoor dining in New York is more than a picture book; it is a historical document illustrating an unprecedented period in the history of the city. check it out here and here.

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