No one is not struggling these days, in one way, another, or many. Financial, physical, emotional, existential. But one category close to the hearts of Chelsea residents is the restaurant business. The word “restaurant” itself derives from the Latin word restaurare, which means “to restore.” A restaurant’s fundamental purpose is to nourish and fulfill its customers, a practice that has all but imploded since the coronavirus hit its virulent stride.
While current restrictions allow for pick-up and delivery, this situation is very volatile. Some businesses, big and small, cannot justify staying open, given the health risks and meager expected income. Chef Giuseppe Mazzeo, of the Italian restaurant and wine bar Zagara, shut his doors over three weeks ago for precisely these reasons. He remains as optimistic as possible under the circumstances, hoping to reopen “when the authorities give the okay.” But no one knows when that might be.
Del Posto, much too grand an establishment to think it might maintain itself on take-out orders, also closed entirely, and EATALY, under the same ownership, is open only in a grocery capacity. Owner Joe Bastianich says “it just doesn’t seem safe.” Under the orders of Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo to close all non-essential enterprises, restaurants can still operate off-premise, and liquor stores remain up and running. Restaurants are even allowed to deliver alcohol, although it must be accompanied by a food order: no solo quarantinis to-go.
It appears easier for places that already relied on off-premise dining to keep up operations. By Chloe, a popular vegan chain, has the benefit of a wide network given its multiple locations, on-trend vittles and brand familiarity, and while some of its physical locations are closed, the Chelsea spot at 60 West 22nd street is still open.
For other restaurants, the restrictions have provided a learning opportunity. Chama Mama, open just over a year, decided to remain open to thank the community that brought about its initial success. While owner Tamara Chubinidze says takeout started off slowly, orders are picking up daily, sometimes over fifty a day. Favorites include Imeruli Khachapuri, a classic Georgian cheesebread, and more conventional offerings such as chicken and vegetable skewers. Chubinidze also offers a selection of natural wines at a 50% discount with any food order. While she can only employ three or four workers a day, she rotates them through to keep as many people employed as she can. She says she has become “very knowledgeable about takeout,” and will continue the service even when things go back to normal.
Le Zie is another neighborhood stalwart persisting, despite the fact that “revenues are not enough to cover the very limited staff and the food. Not to mention utitilies and rent,” according to owner Claudio Bonotto.
Eater.com attempted to maintain a running list of restaurants that were still serving, but the volatility caused them to table the initiative. NYCgo.com has an interactive list, although it only acknowledges four in their Chelsea category (BXL Zoute, Shake Shack, CxRa, and Memo Shish Kebab, which I must add smells phenomenal every time I’ve walked past).
Observation shows there are many more than that. Malibu Diner, a Chelsea classic, has a huge selection and the added bonus of being a 24/7 operation: no hour is too early or late. Hill Country, with some of the best barbecue in the city, might even be better to eat at home, with the chin-dribbling juices and lip-greasing burnt ends. The Meatball Shop has all sort of ‘balls, salads, pastas and sides, Flé Flé offers affordable Mediterranean, and there is Pastai for Italian, Qanoon for Middle Eastern, good ol’ Pete McManus if you need to find solace in a burger and Billy’s for your sweet tooth. Pad Thai, I Rin Thai, Don Giovanni, Mexiue, Brine and Westville are all up and running, and fighting the good fight.
If what-to-drink-with-dinner is emerging in this crisis to be more important than dinner itself, two local establishments have you covered beyond what the liquor store can offer: Patent Pending’s food is a bit of an afterthought, but their beverages might prove to be some of the best the city has on offer, even beyond COVID-season. Thyme Bar offers both innovative craft cocktails and an eclectic food menu leaps beyond standard bar snacks.
And please note: try to order directly from the restaurants themselves when possible, as third-party delivery services take a huge percentage of the profit away from the struggling institutions. Now more than ever, every penny counts.
Will you go hungry during the pandemic? Not if the spirited, generous, hard-working and benevolent restaurateurs of Chelsea have their way. And when this is all over, our continued business will be the impetus needed to begin whatever the post-pandemic new normal turns out to be.