New York City restaurants have never known such terrible times. Many have closed, like Bistro Le Steak on the Upper East Side. The 24-year-old neighborhood institution, a favorite haunt of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, turned off the Belle Epoque lights for good on Jan. 1.
Many more places were on the brink even before Gov. Cuomo banned indoor service. Forced to lure customers willing to brave winter cold, they need every cent to stay afloat until better times.
Restaurant-lovers like me are praying our favorites will still be there by spring. The best way we can help make that happen is simple: Give them every dime we can afford and maybe more.
Of course, not every family can afford to be as generous as I suggest below. But it’s a no-brainer for those able to share their affluence. Here are some of the ways I’m doing it — I hope you will, too.
Eat out as often as you can even if you freeze your patooties off
The cold truth is that even the best heaters only half work for alfresco dining. Even if they’re set up right, they blunt only some of the icy air that blows in through legally mandated enclosure openings.
But bundle up and go! A steady revenue stream is the only thing that can save restaurants until indoor dining is restored. Think of eating in the cold as a noble adventure. Layer up, pile on your hats and scarves, grit your teeth — and eat up.
Most restaurants have many fewer outdoor seats than they had inside. But they have to pay the same rent, taxes, utilities and employee salaries as before. Ordering steak instead of a hamburger and wine instead of beer will help them make up at least some of the shortfall.
Don’t ask for special favors or substitutes
Most kitchens are at the breaking point. Owners can’t afford full crews. “Can they make me chimichurri sauce without chili pepper” might be OK during normal times. But having fewer cooks on deck leaves no margin for time-consuming alterations to suit customers’ whims.
Many restaurant workers must travel from at least one borough away. They risk their health and sanity to make the trek, often late at night. Forget about tipping 15 percent. Don’t penalize a waiter who didn’t refill your glass quickly enough. This is no time to be chintzy. Leave at least 20 percent — period. Leave more if you can afford to.
Reward delivery people who save you from going out
Anyone who bikes General Tso’s chicken fifteen blocks through ice and snow to your home deserves a reward. A delivery person who brings pizza from next door should get $5 to start. If it’s a large order from a pricey restaurant, tip as much as you would if you were eating at the place itself.
If a restaurant uses an outside delivery service, pick up the order yourself if it isn’t too far from home
Some places have their own delivery crews, but many others use outfits such as GrubHub and UberEats. Most of them sock restaurants with fees between 10 percent and 20 percent of the meal’s cost. GrubHub even charges for phone calls that didn’t result in orders. That’s why owners love it when customers pick up their meals themselves. And, as with delivery, remember to tip the guy or gal who hands you the food. Say, “please share it with the kitchen.”
Promote your favorite places on social media
Posting shots of colorful salads on Instagram wore out its welcome at least a year ago. But that was then. Fewer restaurants are using publicists. Mainstream media food coverage is mostly about home cooking. But our Instagram and Facebook shots can help make up the difference. They also tell hard-working staff that we care about them, especially when we include a cheery caption about the food and service.
Keep your mask on when you’re not seated — no exceptions
The SLA or any of a half-dozen city agencies can slap a place with a huge fine, or worse, if an inspector sees a single customer go to the toilet without a mask. It happened to owner friends of mine who went the last mile to keep their places safe.
Go easy on the furniture
Some elaborate outdoor enclosures cost owners up to $100,000. They’re set up to protect customers and avoid legal penalties. Do not move chairs, tables or heaters around. Not only is it selfish, it can break down distancing rules and endanger other customers — and also subject a place to huge fines.
Support the New York Hospitality Alliance
The nonprofit advocacy organization is fighting like crazy to have indoor dining restored. Memberships start at $365. See thenycalliance.org