Well, obviously, if any of that resonates for you?the warm stone streets of the Old Country or the hazy, unrushed July priorities of the South?then you didn't grow up in New York, where eating outside, to this 10-year resident, has never been all it ought to be. Certainly not all it has tried to be. Few sights capsize my soul quicker than the typically haggard Manhattan stab at a sidewalk cafe: a dozen wobbly tables, each ringed by a quartet of those molded white plastic chairs, the whole affair enclosed by some dying flowers in rotting boxes, galvanized pipe fittings better suited to obscurity...and overhung with a sad awning speckled with pigeon shit. Pathetic.
It isn't pretty, even in places such as Union Square West, where Coffee Shop and Blue Water Grill and Steak Frites do their best to evoke outdoor Euro-eating for...for a lot of Euros, seems to me. Actual New Yorkers, on the other hand, have arrived at a different solution to the problem of dining outdoors in the filthiest great city the world has ever known: many favor establishments that have the good sense to put the restaurant between the street and the outdoor eating space. They favor the backyard garden. And thank God for it. Were it not for the backyard garden, we'd spend the entire summer even more disconnected from nature than we already are.
Great gardens are opening up all over town right now, and in the outer boroughs, too. And so a few favorites, beginning in Brooklyn, because it's where I live. Olive Vine Cafe, Park Slope's best summertime eatery, also conceals one of the neighborhood's most comfortable gardens, a snug wooden deck adorned with trees and affording a secret view of the trumpeting angel atop the church across the street. No liquor license, but what you do is go next door and pick up a few pilsners, bypass Olive Vine Cafe's gloomy interior, check out the heaps of brilliantly fresh tomatoes and parsley in the tiny kitchen on the way out back and settle down for a platter of delicious marinated chicken, incomparable hummus, tasty falafels, perfectly dressed salads and yeasty pitas. If beer's not your thing, give the loomi a shot?it's a brewed citrus-and-clove beverage that's like Arab Gatorade. And the mint iced tea is pretty good, too.
Still in Brooklyn, both The Gate and The Park Slope Brewing Co. set up beer gardens out front to charm every inner fratboy, but again, you have to contend with the street. Lemongrass Grill's back garden is far superior to the loud, smoky and often overcrowded main dining room?and provides welcome ventilation for diners wolfing down platefuls of fiery, inexpensive, halfway edible Thai. If you can stomach keening toddlers and Ritalin-addled boy geniuses who like to rub their crotches just a little too much, then drop by Two Boots and try to concentrate on the peppery pizza sauce and hefty po' boys while the spastic kids hurl doughballs at each other and their parents rehash that spring break road trip to the Big Easy back in '87 when they raised fists, reared back and peed off the balcony onto Bourbon St. (I won't get into what the fathers were up to.)
Hillbilly wide-open low-rise big-sky Brooklyn is better suited to outdoor dining than Manhattan, but the gilded isle is up to its neck in open-air options. Both Bar Pitti and Da Silvano pack their broad patches of 6th Ave. sidewalk all summer long. I prefer Bar Pitti, especially for lunch, when the pannini and pinot grigio go down just right. Da Silvano is snazzier, more work, more clogged, but the pasta is more polished and the salads shinier. Acquario serves up bruschetta second only to that at the East Village's superb Frank?but they do it outdoors, unless you count the line waiting to get in Frank as a form of al fresco gourmandizing. It's entirely a judgment call whether you want to fool around with the ogling, oily mopped, denim-swaddled and chainsmoking Euro-louches who greedily scope out American girlflesh from May through September from their splay-legged perches at such fine Village, Soho and Nolita establishments as Bar Six, I Tre Merli, Mezzogiorno, Bistro Margot, Cafe Colonial, French Roast and Time Cafe. Barolo is probably the place to go if being optically pawed doesn't goosepimple your birthday suit?the garden is definitive, a Soho treasure.
Miracle Grill, possessed of the East Village's most enticing outdoor dining space (which can be covetously studied from around the corner, through a gate on 7th St.) is one of my perennial faves, even though I don't much care for the food. Verbena, one of the city's best bets for high-quality seasonal fare in a seductive upscale context, flouts the Irving Pl. convention and steers patrons to its lovely back garden. Diane Forley's highfalutin comfort food causes me to realize what the copious vegetable gardens of my youth might have produced had my relatives not boiled everything for three hours in bacon broth and dredged all meats in batter. Brunetta's is my default destination for summer garden feedbaggery (I especially like that they serve the red wine in juice glasses, old-country style), and Roetelle A.G., after years of visits to the garden, continues to entertain me. It's that synthesis of hipster discretion and Swiss lederhosen weirdness. Roetelle A.G. is the only restaurant in town whose goofball bucolic interior murals promote an outdoor mood while you're scarfing down spaetzle and trying to figure out how, exactly, this restaurant ever happened, a solid decade ahead of Danube and the whole sudden, inexplicable wave of Mitteleuropa chic.
Way west, I've heard that Bottino has something interesting going on out back, a relief, since the actual restaurant strikes me as being unadorned and severe, particularly the bar. Maybe Bottino's extension into nature will wear a touch better. Not that the Chelsea art crowd cares?as long as the sangiovese is flowing. Speaking of artful beasts yanked from the sea, fish can be soothingly?and simply?consumed at Ithaka, where the owners have this whole garden-dining concept down cold, so much so that almost no one seems, during summer, to eat inside. Truth is, the garden is basically an enclosed patio?you're in more of a breezy room than the authentic outdoors?but it still promotes a solarized blue Aegean impression, where the men are all swarthy, hirsute and squinting through bellylaughs as they guzzle retsina and evade the accusing deep-brown almond-eyed glares of their cinnamon-limbed women.
I kind of groove on the caipirinhas at Barramundi (though not as much as the ones at the more cosmopolitan Casa, a West Village treasure). They have an acceptable garden there, with some chairs and shit, a relief from the noisy, nicotine-fogged Lower East Side bar itself. Without a doubt, the crowning outdoor dining venue, combining patio, porch and garden motifs, is Bryant Park Cafe and Grill. All things to all people, and not merely Manhattan's best place to eat outdoors in summertime, but one of the best places on Earth at which to eat outdoors in summertime. If you own, as I soon hope to, a pale-flax linen suit and a pair of suede bucks, this is where you go to sip Sancerre and experience the grand urban pastoral flow: lush green growth?a lawn, no less, in the middle of midtown?pretty girls stretched out half-naked on beachtowels beneath a periwinkle sky, grill fumes dancing on wafty vapors, the nationwide rustle of optimism and well-being, the patriotic thickness of it, hanging over everything like Old Glory, concisely rendered, in firm detail, against a metropolitan backdrop. It's all of it why I left a place where the citizens assume outdoor dining in summertime?where they think "porch" before they think "table." But in New York, and despite the struggle, outdoor dining is precious business, to be sought out, to be tracked down, cherished. To treat as an event. Remember that: If you feel like eating outside this summer, bear in mind that everyone else probably has the same idea. It's unoriginal. That's why it is, in theory, fun.
Summer wine. Let's be honest?it can be a tricky call. Especially around these parts, where the atmosphere after Independence Day suggests a malarial miasma and most people arrive for dinner with their own personal puddles, thirsty as hell and ready not for a glass of Pouilly-Fume but a bunch of restorative Coronas. After that, what's the point in drinking wine? I'm not sure, but for the sake of argument let's assume that there exist wines that will get you through even the sultriest August afternoon, when the sun's swollen like a fuzzy yellow blob and the winds barely rustle the belly hairs on your gasping, bug-eyed beagle.
What I'm going to provide here is some calls, a prediction. This will be a sauvignon blanc summer. You can't beat sauvignon blanc when the mercury rises. As dry whites go, it typically showcases a razor-blade acidity, ample fruit, citrus and a grapefruity or even vaguely herbal finish, with all sorts of other wonderfully zippy tones and layers enlaced throughout: pears and apples and, above all else, limes. Often enough, it can come across as weedy or vegetal, but the genuinely good stuff?particularly the world-class sauvignon blancs of New Zealand's Marlborough region?tastes like alcoholic Fresca. Tastes almost otherworldly, in fact. Takes well to being poured cold, but can also survive warming up?the nose blossoms, revealing lush floral aromas, once the iciness subsides. My current personal favorites are: Cloudy Bay ($22) and Grove Mill ($14), both from New Zealand; from California, Firestone Vineyards' "Santa Ynez Valley" ($10) and Sterling Vineyards' "North Coast" ($13); from Chile, Casa Lapostolle ($10); and from our own nearby North Fork, Hargrave ($10), designated a "Fume Blanc" (the term that Robert Mondavi invented years ago when he reintroduced sauvignon blanc to the American market). A few I haven't sampled yet but am looking forward to are: Waterbrook ($8) and Caterina ($11), both from Washington's Columbia Valley; and from California, the ever-reliable Bogle ($7), Geyser Peak's "Sonoma County" ($9) and Chateau St. Jean's Sonoma Fume Blanc ($9). All these wines I'm mentioning here are '98 or '99 vintages?and that's the way it should be. Sauvignon blanc doesn't age well.
As far as pairings go, you can use sauvignon blanc to wash down just about anything grilled or freshly picked. I wouldn't put it next to a steak, sausages or a hamburger, but almost any fish, shrimp or bivalve, raw or cooked, would be a happy companion. Even lusher, fleshier, sweeter food?lobster or crab?would do all right with some sauvignon blanc in tow, particularly the richer styles from South Africa and the pricier labels from New Zealand and California.
Stick with sauvignon blanc. The good ones are so much better, for the price (Cloudy Bay, perhaps the best in the world?certainly the most striking?goes for less than a so-so California chardonnay), than those other summer staples, stuff like pinot grigio and rosé, that there's really no point in drinking anything else. I'm not kidding. Do it this summer?because by next year the prices will probably go up.