From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the East End bustles with activity, much of which revolves around its seasonal and year-round businesses. One of the most vital is the restaurant industry. With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing restaurants to limit service to takeout and delivery, several key weeks of revenue have been lost for restaurants on both the North and South Forks. Thankfully, they’re about to get a big boon, as Long Island lifts restrictions on outdoor dining.
New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele had been advocating for the East End’s restaurant industry from the start and has been in discussion with the Governor’s office daily. “Restaurants are a critical part of the economy, particularly the seasonal restaurants, and that was the concern to getting outdoor dining going,” Thiele says. “Each weekend that they were losing in June would have been a major loss to their bottom line. It’s a tremendous part of our local economy, and it’s an attraction that brings people here.”
The sentiment that takeout and delivery aren’t sustainable in the long-term is echoed by businesses across both Forks. Stephan Bogardus, chef at The Halyard Restaurant at Sound View Greenport, is eager for outdoor dining to help business. “Hopefully, with outdoor seating being permissible, I think it will be a big advantage over the to-go model, actually welcoming people back to the property,” he says. “I think it’s really going to be great. Using the beach space we have is going to be fantastic.” Tora Matsuoka, partner at Seasoned Hospitality, Claudio’s Restaurant Group, refers to Claudio’s outdoor seating as Dining in Distance. “We’re beyond excited to open,” he says. “It’s been a tough start to this season and being able to offer our locals, boaters and visitors a place to get outside, sit by the water and enjoy the best of Claudio’s food and drinks is our absolute pleasure.”
Ian Duke, owner of Southampton restaurants Union Burger Bar (pictured), Southampton Social Club and the upcoming Union Sushi & Steak, adds, “There’s a certain degree of frustration when we hang on such tight margins with a normal, regular society. Going into this, knowing full well we can start out with just outdoors, we are thrilled to be open. But we also know we’re nowhere near making money or getting close to the break-even mark.” But, Duke points out, “I am a huge silver lining guy. I’m excited to see people smiling and people being able to enjoy food. I think we’re going to see a lot of that. It’s interesting to see how our industry will be looked at with a renewed fondness for something nobody would have thought they missed so much.” Duke has also been in awe of the community around him. “The community has been so supportive and we’re seeing it across the board, whether it be the amount of food being ordered from us, the gratuities for the staff have been excessive and people are appreciative of the risks our staff is taking,” he says.
Of course, safety is a huge concern for everyone involved. “Abide by the rules. Wear your mask. Social distance. People are anxious to get out there,” Thiele says. “The biggest issue that restaurants are going to have is simply going from 0 to 60, just like that. There’s still limitations, and people have to be aware of it.” Adds Duke, “I think first and foremost, people need to be accurately informed. Reach out, check restaurant websites, find out the rules.” Duke notes that Southampton Social Club is reservation-only, with Union Burger Bar strongly encouraging reservations. Southampton Social Club is also expanding the amount of cabanas available outside. “It’s the sort of thing where you can just forget where you are for a while,” he says.
The various townships and the villages of the East End have been supportive, as well. Thiele points out that the New York State Liquor Authority [SLA] and local governments have been amenable to lifting restrictions to make it easier for restaurants. “The SLA has devised a simple process for the restaurants. There’s not going to be a [complicated] application process,” he says.
Hopefully, outdoor dining will bring some peace and joy to those who have had a tough go of it the last few months. “You can just relax,” Duke says. “While making it safe, we want to let people enjoy themselves for the first time in a long time.”