A Tale of Three Tables

How bike racks affected the survival of some city restaurants

| 07 May 2021 | 11:51

East 48th Street is a foodie paradise with three excellent restaurants between Lex and Third.

Each faced its own path to survival during COVID season. Thanks to a patio and access to covered tables in the street, Avra, on the North, did a land office outdoor dining business right up to the day it started to snow. Brass, at the corner, simply closed for the duration and as of this writing remains closed and incommunicado.

The Seafire Grill had a more difficult year. Its access to outdoor dining was blocked on the sidewalk by an alley and building barriers and on the street by a rack of Citi Bikes. This last was not an isolated problem.

In fact, the only place in Manhattan where blocking bikes took a hike was on East Second Street where they were obstructing a fire hydrant. Elsewhere, despite requests from both Comptroller Scott Stringer and Borough President Gale Brewer, DOT (which controls the bike racks) refused to consider temporarily moving the bikes even if the restaurants were willing to ante up the cash to cover removal, storage and return. As a result, without roadway seating, several restaurants, including Seafire, shut down, taking the wages of workers with them.

The Seafire Grill has re-opened, many others have not.

“Temporarily” Closed

In the ten years before COVID made its way into their lives, there were more than 20,000 restaurants in New York City, about half of them in Manhattan. Two years ago, the latest year for which numbers are available, these work places employed more than 300,000 New Yorkers who earned more than $10.7 billion in total wages citywide, while cooking, pouring and serving more than $27 billion worth of taxable food and drink.

Not now. In March, a Yelp Local Economic Impact Report revealed that 60% of the restaurants that “temporarily” closed this year and last are actually gone for good. The list ranges from the iconic 90-year-old 21 Club to Jing Fong, the dim sum palace which opened in 1978 and the moved to its well-known Elizabeth Street site in 1992. The 21 management is exploring future options and Jing Fong is still doing take out, delivery and outdoor dining but the magic of welcoming guest indoors is almost certainly gone for both.

But hopefully not for all.

Last week, New Yorkers were once again permitted to sit at a bar while having a drink. On Friday, restaurant indoor dining capacity was expanded to 75 percent of the seats. By the end of this week the 12 a.m. food and beverage service curfew will be lifted for outdoor dining areas beginning; by the end of the month the indoor curfew will also disappear.

At the same time, the mayor, the NYC Department of Small Business Services (SBS), and the NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment (MOME) have launched Fair Share NYC: Restaurants, a program using email lists, social media, and third-party industry groups to connect restaurants to the federal Restaurant Revitalization Fund (RRF) which doles out non-taxable grants to restaurants hit hardest by the COVID-19 crisis to “keep the lights on, keep their workers employed and keep their neighborhoods vibrant.”

But one problem remains. This spring and summer if you peddle your own bike up to your favorite restaurant expecting to dine out in the fresh air and find the way to the tables blocked by somebody else’s Citi Bike, you know who to blame.