How an Out-of-Work Tour Guide Created a Coffee Table Book About NYC’s ‘Streeteries’

The author in Rancho Tequileria’s ‘playpen’.

By Peggy Taylor

I adore sidewalk cafes. So last year when Covid shut down indoor dining and Mayor de Blasio expanded outdoor dining 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 sidewalk cafe-hopping, so the idea that they might flourish here thrilled me no end. Yes, I knew it would be born of a tragedy, but I was eager to see it happen.

In addition to shutting down the restaurant industry, the pandemic devastated the tourism industry, so as a NYC 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 ventured out only for grocery shopping and walks in Central Park. Then in June 2020, following the launch of Open Restaurants, I overcame my fear of public transportation and decided to explore the City and document our novel outdoor dining scene. Was the City really allowing restaurants to set up shop on curbsides and roadways; under street trees and scaffolding sheds; over trapdoors and manhole covers? One restaurant, Nice Matin, even found itself on the ground floor of a homeless shelter.

Nice Matin four months ago.

I decided to refer to these outdoor setups as ‘streeteries,’ as the media had begun to call them (exact origin unknown.) I was convinced that a photo book of the streeteries would be of historical interest, since we were dining in places we’d never dined before and probably would never dine again. Mainly I explored Manhattan, but I also got to the Bronx and Queens. I did this in summer, fall, and winter, in the heat, cold, snow, and rain.

So what did I find? Streets delightfully vibrant as restaurateurs treated us to a dizzying display of yurts, huts, bubbles, faux Swiss chalets, and tents hung with plastic chandeliers. Some streeteries were upscale and elegant, but many were ramshackle and ugly. Critics panned the eyesores as “shacks”, “favellas”, and “shantytowns”, but New Yorkers flocked to them anyway, wondering why we hadn’t always dined this way. Even folks who had fled to the Hamptons returned for a day of in-street dining solely to experience the novelty. No more beer guzzling in pitch black saloons. We were all outdoors now, eating and drinking in the light.

We were also eating and drinking closer to traffic than ever before. Incredibly, we found ourselves dining in streeteries just inches away from sanitation trucks, cement mixers, car transporters and tractor trailers rumbling past the nape of our necks. “I can’t believe I’m so close to that fire truck that I can talk to the driver,” a brunchee confided at Nice Matin. Another gushed over how European it all felt. “I feel like I’m in Paris!”

Harvest Kitchen’s first iteration.

Harvest Kitchen’s second iteration

Harvest Kitchen’s third iteration.

One of the things that struck me was how often the streeteries changed. Restaurateurs were constantly innovating, or, as one said, “We threw stuff at the wall and went with what stuck.” For example, at the start of the pandemic, Columbus Avenue’s Harvest Kitchen put chairs and tables between car and bike lanes, “protected” only by stanchions and yellow police crime tape. But soon that streetery was replaced by a tent with a three-sided, wooden barrier doubling as a planter. Later, it became what we see today with a hardwood floor, plastic roll-up curtains, and a railing spilling over with flowers.

Jean-Georges at 1 Central Park West had us dining in style with its cozy winter ski cabins complete with carpets, cushioned banquettes, portable heaters, and air purifiers. Some folks complained that these cabins didn’t constitute outdoor dining, and I too questioned them at first, but when I saw their air purifier and wall and roof hatches which opened easily for fresh air, I fell in love with them. After dining in one, I didn’t want to go home.

Cafe du Soleil.

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

Another of my faves was Rancho Tequileria at 95th and Amsterdam whose miniature pennants of bright red, gold, and orange lifted my spirits big time. It was a much-needed antidote to the all-black streeteries which were all too common. Their black barriers, black chairs, black tables, black signage infuriated me. How could you choose black for an outdoor cafe? Wasn’t the pandemic depressing enough?

Il Violino‘s Easter Cottage.

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

I had a ball capturing all this.

But not everybody liked the streeteries. Critics complained that they were too noisy; drivers grumbled over lost parking spots; pedestrians griped over lost sidewalk space. “This ain’t Paris!” fumed others. Outdoor diners, they said, would be accosted by the homeless, roughed up by vagrants; the streeteries would invite vandals, arsonists, and rats and be plowed into by out-of-control drivers. “How’d you like a Lyft in your soup?” one critic snarled. Many of these things, did, in fact, happen, but not to the point of making the City scrap the program.

Even today a vocal minority is calling for an end to 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 streeteries, which is why many restaurants are keeping their bubbles, huts, and cabins even as indoor dining resumes. The Greens’ ski cabins featured on the cover of my book are returning this winter, as are Jean-Georges’ cabins. Bergdorf Goodman 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 staying power. That will be just fine with me.

The result of Peggy Taylor’s efforts is a photography book showcasing an array of NYC outdoor dining setups. But Streeteries: New York’s Pandemic Outdoor Dining is more than a picture book; it is a historical document depicting an unprecedented time in the City’s history. Check it out here and here.

COLUMNS, FOOD, OUTDOORS | 22 comments | permalink
    1. Ll says:

      Awesome article.

      I love the open air eating. Very fun

    2. Sharodie says:

      I love the streeteries, too! Such a nice, personal post from the author.

      • Peggy Taylor says:

        Let’s make sure we strongly advocate to keep them and not let the vocal minority have the day. At the same time, let’s encourage our lawmakers to address the legitimate problems certain neighborhoods are having with the streeteries.

    3. For better or worse says:

      I want a copy of this book if for no other reason than to remember this “odd” time in history

    4. Uwsmom says:

      What a resourceful one you are! Finding such a productive and fun way to fill these challenging times.
      Thank you for the stories.
      Is there a link to your book?

    5. UWSSurfer says:

      Beautiful!

    6. While I don’t like these streeteries and think that they’re dangerous for pedestrians, diners and waitstaff alike, encircled as they are by fast moving, often silent and occasionally deadly vehicles. Though I’ve other criticisms, I’ll leave it at that for now, this being a family Rag and all.

      Still, their creativity can’t be denied and the author does us all a service by documenting just one aspect (and certainly not the worst) of this… unfortunate time we find ourselves trudging through.

    7. Raj S says:

      Very nice article.You should do a regular blog on the neighborhood.

    8. Maurine Klimt says:

      This wonderful thing happened when we all needed it so much! When nothing else was was possible fo us, and made it possible for us to get together and see people we couldn’t in any other way. It certainly kept me from getting totally. The restaurants came through brilliantly and, on the whole, did better as they expanded their table count.

      • Peggy Taylor says:

        It was the one bright spot to come out of this tragedy. I’m so grateful to the restaurants for keeping our spirits up and easing our stress. And I’m glad I was able to share some of the streeteries with you.

        • Bill says:

          Very nice article and excllent work. For me, the wonderful side benefit has been increased oppoetunites to dine with my pooch, Just like Paris. When Thankgiving day plans went south, pooch and I dined at Scarlatta.

    9. Sandy Eckstein says:

      I was never a big fan of outdoor dining anywhere in NY.
      A cocktail, yes‼️Dinner No.
      Folks I know loved them.
      I’m going to selectively change my No.
      Here’s to dining out!
      Thank you‼️

    10. rteplow says:

      I’m with you, Peggy! I love them and want them to be permanent.

    11. dc says:

      Oh, I need to get this.

    12. ml says:

      Hi Peggy,
      I think restaurant sheds need to go – many significant issues IMO.

      But your photos look terrific and the compilation is a great idea!

      Good luck with the tour guide work

      • Peggy Taylor says:

        I acknowledge problems in some neighborhoods, especially when restaurants close and fail to dismantle them. Hopefully the Department of Transportation will keep its promise to make them comply.