New York Times, Week In Review, domingo, 30 de septiembre de 2007, pp. 1, 4.
September 30, 2007
By FRANK BRUNI
AMONG the many reasons to suspect that Europeans are more gifted than Americans at enjoying urban life is this: they eat outdoors because it’s pretty. We eat outdoors even though it’s not.
By we I mean New Yorkers, and I specifically mean the New Yorkers who, from the first rumor of spring to the dying gasps of an Indian summer, insist on restaurants with sidewalk cafes, apparently believing that nothing sauces roasted chicken like the exhaust from an M104 bus and there’s no music more relaxing than the eek-eek-eek of a delivery truck in reverse.
On the narrow and sometimes cobbled byways of Paris, Rome or Barcelona, a sidewalk cafe most likely has a view, a mood, a purpose beyond fresh air. (To be fair, it isn’t so fresh there, either.)
On Broadway, Columbus or Lexington, a sidewalk cafe has traffic — pedestrian and vehicular — so dense and close that a diner has to learn not to flinch. Wine helps. For me just three and a half glasses do the trick.
Of course I’m generalizing, and perhaps I’m exaggerating, but I’m nonetheless wondering: are the ranks of New Yorkers who like these seating arrangements really so large?
On the evidence of last week’s news, they are. And they’re growing.
And they’re a neat window into the peculiar character of this city’s denizens, although some open-air epicures are really just looking for a place to smoke. Thanks to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, they get a double dose of carbon monoxide — some from Marlboro, some from Mercedes — for the price of one entree of braised short ribs. The man knows how to cull the herd.
What happened last week was an announcement by city officials that restaurants with sidewalk cafes could henceforth install portable natural-gas heaters and thus extend the weeks or months when a diner might comfortably — in terms of temperature, that is — lunch or sup outside.
And part of what fueled that decision, apparently, is the increased popularity of sidewalk cafes in New York, the number of which has grown by 25 percent over the last four years, according to city officials. There are now 900 of them.
Some are really lovely.
I bet 875 aren’t.
I should be clear: I’m talking about cafes that are actually on sidewalks — that jut into public space — because exposed areas or patios that are set back from the sidewalk, and exist within the bounds of a restaurant, aren’t part of the aforementioned count. They’ve been using portable heaters for a while.
And I’m not talking about back gardens. Who doesn’t love a back garden? It’s often quieter than the rest of the restaurant — trees and clouds are effective mufflers — and sometimes it’s even surrounded by vine-covered brick walls or a painted wood fence.
What surrounds many a sidewalk cafe are waist-high metal dividers that recall crowd-control barricades as much as anything else. The tables are a pinkie’s width apart. I look at the diners gorging themselves in these pens and wonder if they’re actors rehearsing to play veal in the movie version of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”
They’re on awkward display, not so much people watching as people watched, letting all the world see whether they chew with closed mouths and what kind of crumb management they’ve mastered. It has to be nerve-racking.
So why go through it?
Theory 1: It lets them pretend they’re in Europe. While many Americans outside New York get excited about “freedom fries” and dismiss Europeans as too-thin scolds with too-small cars, New Yorkers envy their fuel efficiency, their monuments, their cheese, their eyewear.
And their cafes. Never mind that eating outside in Rome means a Bernini statue and a Baroque church while eating outside in uptown Manhattan means an unobstructed panorama of Bed, Bath & Beyond. New Yorkers are fantastic at make-believe, which leads me to ...
Theory 2: New Yorkers have a highly evolved, unrivaled knack for glossing over the limitations, absurdities and dubious habitability of an unforgiving metropolis.
They walk into a friend’s 545-square-foot two-bedroom (one bath, no tub) and stammer: “Just $4,965 a month for this?” They walk into the Spotted Pig at 5:55 p.m. on a Tuesday night and exult: “Only a 90-minute wait?”
And they sit in a sidewalk cafe — sirens blaring, vagrants swearing and jackhammers jittering all around them — and sigh: “It’s so relaxing to soak up the street life.”
Theory 3: If something is in limited supply, New Yorkers want it, period.
Most restaurants don’t have sidewalk cafes. If they do, there are fewer seats outdoors than indoors. So these seats take on an exclusive aura, and once all of them are occupied, they become more exclusive still. In New York, the only thing better than something there’s not enough of is something there’s absolutely none of.
At the restaurant L’Impero on a recent night, most of the precious few tables in front of the entrance were taken. Most of the dozens of tables inside weren’t. When I turned down the hostess’s offer of one of the remaining perches outside, she just about went pale with shock. I explained that while I was fond of fresh air, what I was really gaga about was air-conditioning.
On the Upper West Side, when scaffolding went up around the sidewalk cafe in front of the Ocean Grill this year, the restaurant’s owner, Stephen Hanson, wasn’t about to let the lure and luster of those seats be dimmed. He had chandeliers and potted plants hung from the top of the scaffolding and leafy vines wrapped around the poles.
Mr. Hanson operates a dozen restaurants in Manhattan. Seven have outdoor seating; four have actual sidewalk cafes. He was a big proponent of the new portable-heater rule. He said he thought it could extend sidewalk season from the first day of April to the last day of October.
I think it could be the death of sidewalk cafes.
If they’re around for only four or five months every year, they’re exceptions, digressions, reminders of warm weather that won’t last. As Mr. Hanson said when I asked him for his own theories about why New Yorkers embrace these enclosures: “It’s the seasonality of it. It’s something you can’t have all the time.”
But if sidewalk cafes start to operate for six or seven months, they’re standard, and eating in one isn’t a celebration of summer. It’s a celebration of man’s talent for climate control, even on the pavement in front of Circuit City.
New Yorkers, of course, might find some other, rosier way to see it. I’d ponder the possibilities, but I’m late for a picnic someone’s having in the Holland Tunnel.