DineOut NYC and the Pains and Pleasures of Streetside Snacking.
Wandering through any thriving thoroughfare on a warm day in New York City you’ll find life pouring across the pavement to tables nestled in now-permanent makeshift shacks anchored to the curb. Life in the concrete jungle depends on our willingness to trade shoebox apartments and an exorbitant cost of living for the theater of city streets. Today’s boisterous eateries across the five boroughs are a welcome shift from the ghost-town conditions of 2020, serving as beacons of fellowship and food, transformed by outdoor dining.
In March 2020, necessary isolation due to COVID19 silenced bustling sidewalks as we involuntarily retreated to dreary micro-quarters. Alongside this devastating decline in coruscating city life, the pandemic pummeled New York City’s hospitality industry. With reduced foot traffic, limited cash flow, and crippling fear of unmasked and virus-carrying diners, the pandemic eliminated approximately 300,000 restaurant jobs overnight. Hundreds of establishments closed their doors. There was no money, no meals, and no clear path forward.
In an attempt to breathe life back into the city DineOut NYC was developed, a food-safe ventilator for a critical patient. The pandemic “took away one of the places that makes New York, New York,” said David Rockwell, architect and founder of the award-winning Rockwell Group. Known for restaurant interiors and theatrical sets, his creative intuition and passion for our relationship with public space reverberated over the phone. Through conversations with city officials, restaurateurs, and neighborhood groups searching for solutions in muddy waters, Rockwell partnered with Andrew Rigie, Executive Director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, and Melba Wilson, owner of Melba’s and President of the NYC Hospitality Alliance as the initiative sought to revitalize restaurants using creative and agile design.
DineOut NYC’s initial phase was a modular kit for streetside outdoor dining. Designed pro-bono by Rockwell Group, it included dining pavilions with chairs, tables, and bench seating, mobile planters, plexi dividers, and host stands adhering to initial guidelines established by the Department of Transportation. "[It’s] simple so it could be customizable,” said Rockwell, noting a desire for the design to adjust for each restaurants’ unique needs and branding. The novel kit of parts was curated as a scalable system adaptable to any location, with plans made available to any restaurateur as an open-source downloadable DineOut NYC toolkit.
The kit is spare and efficient–like a veteran chef’s mise-en-place–echoing the project’s swift three-month development. On Open Restaurants opening day, 62 seats, planters, and partitions rose from the pavement in six hours on 114th Street for the Harlem-based Soul food restaurant Melba’s. “DineOut NYC allowed Melba’s to produce about 73 percent of our pre-COVID business in the first week, which was a lifesaver,” noted Wilson via email.
The nonprofit provided six restaurants in hard-hit neighborhoods with dining pavilions and related permits thanks to donated funds, material, and labor. Additional communal seating in Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, Chinatown, and the South Bronx served several neighboring restaurants. Banquettes were eye-catching and colorful, adorned with community-painted murals. Multipurpose mobile planters became road barriers, closing the street to through traffic and providing ample space for pedestrians and programming. DineOut NYC was creating a new town square for each block.
The design system was the perfect solution for summer 2020. Over the following three years, it has proven to be a mediocre fix to significant challenges with outdoor dining. The initial pavilions had no flexibility; though modular, the system was not storable or easily removed. Kenny McPartlan, owner of Hudson Smokehouse in the South Bronx, noted the “public and open” design created a problem. “It was basically permanent, so seats went empty [in winter] or with people in them that weren’t customers,” McPartlan said, the cacophony of a lively restaurant echoing in the background. Open-air and unable to be locked, the seating had no protection from weather or destructive city dwellers of any species. Restaurateurs also became responsible for appeasing inspector queries, though they were not responsible for the permits, construction, or upkeep of the pavilions belonging to DineOut NYC.
Today, many once vibrant pavilions are desaturated. A graffiti smiley face drips above soda cans patching gaps in the plywood across the sidewalk from the historic Wo Hop restaurant in Chinatown, where only half of the original DineOut NYC installation remains. In other locations, pavilions have been erased. “We were allowed to ask it to stay,” McPartlan said, “but then any problems would be on us.” For many the complexity of use and future associated costs could not be justified by negligible incremental revenue.
DineOut NYC was a temporary bandage on a wound of bureaucracy, highlighting systemic shortcomings when defining civic space as public terrain. City streets are multiplex and multi-use, requiring access for municipal branches from sanitation to law enforcement. “There are so many different competing uses of public space,” said Rigie, while discussing the complexity of the future of dining sheds. DineOut NYC was created for a time of scarcity. Now, the street needs to return to its original purpose (or have more flexibility to do so…it turns out snow plows and permanent in-road pavilions are not compatible).
An innovative design system recognized with several awards, DineOut NYC’s greater influence drills beyond the plywood. While offering a map to navigate the complexities of outdoor dining it also redefined our view of community space, encouraging public and private urban living to mix tableside. “It was an effort to use design to make the streets more nimble, and to encourage social activity that is only available with the in-person experience,” said Rockwell. Coaxing New Yorkers back outside reinvigorated desolate neighborhoods. “The outdoor structures not only allowed us to stay open,” Melba Wilson said, “but offer[ed] a glimpse of normalcy and nurtur[ed] fellowship over food during dark and uncertain times.” Now, three years after its onset, the initiative’s influence may be best recognized as a dynamic catalyst reshaping our relationship with the cityscape.
As of March 2023, approximately 85% of restaurant industry jobs have returned. DineOut NYC brought clarity early in the crisis for restaurateurs and patrons, saving an estimated hundreds of jobs at at least fifteen restaurants across the five boroughs. For its simplicity, timeliness, customizability, and positive impact, the project is a brilliant beta for design as means of restaurant survival, perhaps laying a foundation for more sustainable (or flexible) designs for streetside snacking.
Our urban sense of belonging is found outside. DineOut NYC was a makeshift bridge between the past and present, surpassing design for survival to reinvigorate a sense of community when all sense of fellowship was stripped away. Many streeteries are now hodgepodge relics of innovation, the shattered particleboard longing for a system designed for longevity. While the initial modular system has faced ongoing trials, the project has lasting impact. “It's a good catalyst,” said Rigie, “for reimagining the public realm in other ways.” As the future of al fresco dining now appears to be seasonal, designers now have the opportunity to repave the concrete jungle. The solutions may lie simply in rethinking our use of public space–or redefining private. We’ll see.
David Rockwell serves on the Advisory Board of the Museum of 21st Century Design.
About the Author
Brooke Viegut is an experience designer, design critic, and director-choreographer for live entertainment. Fascinated by the "art of having a good time," she studies objects and experiences designed for joy, pleasure, and leisure. She is the lead experience designer at for.play, and co-hosts “so there’s this…” a podcast about design that disappoints. Author of the upcoming Anonymous Intimacy (expected 2023).
Brooke holds an MA in Design Research, Writing, and Criticism from the School of Visual Arts, and BA in Directing from the Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University.