What it’s like to open a new restaurant during a pandemic
As even a cursory glance at unemployment figures and business closures around the country will show, 2020 has to be the worst year in the history of modern restaurants.
Imagine still trying to open a restaurant this year in the face of all that.
But given how long it takes to open a restaurant in the first place—let alone reopen one during a pandemic after a multi-month shutdown—there might not be much choice for some owners except to press on. Investments have been made, contracts and leases signed, and opening and reopening (even if only for takeout, delivery, and perhaps outdoor dining) are the only paths to recouping any losses sustained during the shutdown.
“The restaurant and bar industry has become the villain of COVID-spreading, and I think that is unfair,” says Linden Pride, co-owner, with his wife, Nathalie Hudson, of two restaurants in New York City. “Just as precautions can be taken in any social interaction, our industry is going above and beyond in how we are enforcing safety practices to ensure the health of our guests and staff. We are one of the largest sectors of employment in New York City, and our industry needs support if we’re going to get through this time.”
For those restaurant owners who move to reopen indoor dining, they could be facing an uphill battle. Not just in reduced capacity, so reduced checks per table each night, but also in getting diners to want to indulge in dining indoors at all. A CDC study in September found that people who had contracted COVID were twice as likely to say they had dined at a restaurant in the preceding two weeks. And a poll from YouGov and reservations service SevenRooms found in late August that more than one in four Americans have said they will not feel comfortable dining out until there is a vaccine.
Planned as a second iteration of the wildly popular Caffe Dante in Greenwich Village, right near New York University, Dante West Village was originally set to open in March as a more traditional restaurant space with the same European vibe as its sister spot. But the early spring opening was delayed as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak and economic shutdown. So the managers pushed back the soft grand opening to July for exclusively outdoor dining.
“When we finally opened for outdoor dining, we were making adjustments daily, then weekly, as the city was sporadically disseminating information. We were trying to figure out exactly what the guidelines were and then go above and beyond to make sure our guests and staff felt extremely safe when dining,” Pride explains. That included constructing table dividers, enforcing temperature checks, placing hand sanitizer on each table, and more.
But opening or reopening in July also meant having to deal with increasingly chaotic weather on the Eastern Seaboard, from extreme heat to sudden torrential thunderstorms. Pride says he never had so many weather apps on his phone before. “I was going crazy checking multiple times a day, praying it wouldn’t rain,” he recalls. “Thankfully, we are surrounded by an incredible community who continued to support us, rain or shine.”
Now, with the reopening of indoor dining in New York City on Sept. 30, at 25% capacity for the foreseeable future, the restaurant acknowledges it has a whole new, additional battle to face as the eatery welcomes guests into its dining room for the first time.
Dante West Village is a seafood-driven restaurant, focused around a wood-fired grill and charcoal oven. The Mediterranean-inspired menu takes cues from coastal cuisines of both northern Spain and southern Italy, and the drinks menu focuses on two internationally popular drinks: the spritz and the martini.
Set on the corner of Hudson and Perry streets in Manhattan’s West Village neighborhood, the mint green–colored establishment hosts outdoor seating along both sides of the facade, with curated glass dividers embellished with witty cocktail hour–inspired phrases. Inside, plush green velvet banquettes complement the hand-carved marble bar, vintage lighting, and bespoke wallpaper.
In accordance with current New York state and city guidelines as of this publishing date, the restaurant has implemented 25% capacity for indoor dining, which equates to just 18 people. The team also installed an HVAC filtration system and created custom frames to create barriers in between tables to promote social distancing. Additionally, all guests undergo temperature checks prior to dining indoors (the staff also undergoes daily temperature checks at the start of each shift), and Pride says the host keeps a log of all guests dining indoors for contact tracing purposes.
“In our experience with New York diners, we’ve found that there is a consensus of wanting to get it done ‘right,’ and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do,” Pride says. “We are excited to welcome guests for indoor dining, and I feel very good about it. We’d love to see it increase to 50% or more as long as we’re able to ensure social distancing. I believe that increasing indoor dining capacity to 50%, as well as making outdoor dining permanent, is the only way the restaurant and bar industry will make it through this time.”
Already a neighborhood hotspot popular with locals and celebrities alike, typically generating a wait list and a consistent (but distanced) crowd on Friday and Saturday nights, Dante West Village will continue outdoor dining through the winter, utilizing heaters and setting out blankets for guests. The bar program also just launched its “Fall Into Dante” autumnal drinking menu, featuring hot cocktails suited for the colder weather.
“We will be doing everything we can to survive so that we can make guests comfortable, continue to employ our staff, offer health insurance to our employees, and serve our local community while adhering to guidelines put in place by local and state ordinances,” Pride says.