On Monday night, the fairy lights outside Lighthouse, a farm-to-table restaurant in Brooklyn, were twinkling. Most passersby sported masks, but the diners seated at well-spaced picnic tables outside the restaurant wore theirs around their chins or abandoned them entirely as they tucked into plates of smoked labneh, tahini-slicked cauliflower and Israeli couscous..
A chalkboard sign on the sidewalk said simply, “We’re back.”
The customers at Lighthouse were among the first New Yorkers to enjoy sit-down dining since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. On Monday, the city entered Phase 2 of its reopening plan, a milestone in the fight against coronavirus that brings restaurants back to life — with a lot of precautions.
Restaurants are only allowed to serve patrons outside. Tables must be spaced six feet apart. Employees must wear masks at all times, and patrons must wear them except when seated at a table. Socially-distanced entrances and exits must be clearly marked so that customers interact with each other as little as possible.
So what does this step towards a resumption of public life look like for the city’s Jewish eateries?
For many, the answer is more of the same. Delis and appetizing stores have thrived for decades within relatively small storefronts. Jam-packed tables and limited elbow room at the serving counter are part of the charm. Now those very features, and a lack of outdoor seating space, make a safe reopening difficult to imagine.
“Phase 2 doesn’t really impact us,” said Niki Russ Federman, co-owner of Russ and Daughters, a 106-year-old appetizing store born on the Lower East Side that now boasts two additional outposts in Manhattan and a “factory” in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. While the relatively spacious Brooklyn location is open for walk-in service, Manhattan customers are still placing orders online or by phone. “Things will stay the same until we can allow guests inside the space,” she said.
By contrast, some restaurants oriented around sit-down dining see a path to reopening within the parameters of Phase 2. On Thursday, Shalom Japan, a Williamsburg restaurant serving “authentically inauthentic” Jewish and Japanese food, began using outdoor space, which normally accommodates 17 people, to seat 12 patrons for meals of gefilte takoyaki and matzo ball ramen.
Those who announced plans to reopen quickly received reservation requests from quarantine-weary patrons. Two days before Phase 2 officially began, Lighthouse co-owner Naama Tamir said she anticipated serving as many people as possible in her first week back at work. “The number is small,” she said. “We’re used to different numbers altogether. But it’s filling up, and people are asking on Instagram and calling.”
One exception to the divide between legacy Jewish delis and younger sit-down restaurants is Katz’s Delicatessen, a staple of Lower East Side dining that pivoted to takeout and delivery in March. Owner Jake Dell said that he didn’t initially anticipate making changes with the advent of Phase 2: loyal regulars had kept the business financially healthy throughout the pandemic, and busy traffic on adjacent streets made it impossible to safely seat patrons outside.
But when the city closed one street outside the deli, Dell quickly moved tables outside. Now, customers can order a sandwich at the counter and eat it under the vintage signs decorating Katz’s brick wall.
The circumstances are radically different from any in the deli’s history, but “in a weird way, it still feels like Katz’s,” Dell said — the improvised seating area even boasts a decorative pickle barrel.
Of course, Phase 2 arrives too late for some Jewish restaurants. In May, fine dining staple Abigael’s on Broadway closed its dining room permanently. Meanwhile, the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, a Los Angeles-based coffee shop with several branches in New York, ended its kosher-only status, saying in a press release that the decision was accelerated by the pressures of the pandemic.
And while Phase 2 is supposed to shore up restaurants struggling to stay afloat, adapting to social distancing restrictions presents its own financial burden.
Juda Schlass, the owner of upscale Israeli restaurant Alenbi Kitchen, took advantage of new city regulations that make it easier for restaurants to convert adjacent sidewalk space to outdoor seating, obtaining a permit to set up tables outside his Crown Heights building. But in order to seat enough customers to make outdoor dining fiscally sustainable, he needs to install fiberglass barriers between tables, a process he expects to be time-consuming and costly. A restauranteur who prides himself on ambiance and presentation, Schlass said he’ll spend more money on plants and other decorations to make the new arrangement seem natural and pleasant.
Customers are eager to return to the restaurant, he said, but he’s worried they’ll balk at price hikes reflecting both physical renovations and the increased cost of almost every ingredient the kitchen uses.
“Let’s just say I’m putting in a lot of effort into setting this up, but I’m more looking forward to Phase 3,” he said.
Irene Katz Connelly is an editorial fellow at the Forward. You can contact her at email@example.com.
What does Phase 2 look like for New York Jewish eats?