NEW YORK >> The ceiling in the shed I’d been told to step into was so low I had to stoop. The walls, made of raw, unpainted wood and foam insulation board, were too close together for me to extend my arms more than halfway. All the light came from a bare bulb plugged into an extension cord. There was one small window next to the door, which was the only way in or out. Rain dripped from a leak in the roof.
In ordinary times, being led into a room like this might make me think: Will anyone hear me if I scream?
But this is January of 2021 in the plague-stricken city of New York, so I looked around and thought how lucky I was to have found a nice, safe place for dinner.
The shed, in the backyard of the Brooklyn ramen shop Samurai Papa, is one of the small, private dining structures that some restaurants rely on now that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has banned indoor dining in the city again and the night air has made unprotected outdoor dining uncomfortable. This is the winter of the yurt, the time of the tiny house, the season of the space bubble, the hour of the hut.
As a class, the ramen shed and its cousins are certainly outnumbered by the other major architectural solution that restaurants have turned to this winter, the enclosed porch. Enclosed porches may be built against an exterior wall or may stand on their own in the street or on the sidewalk. They tend to hold several tables kept at least 6 feet apart or separated by a partition. Nonetheless, when you dine in an enclosed porch, you share the air with your neighbors.
An enclosed porch does not have to be a virus trap. Leaving windows open at least 6 inches and shutting doors just halfway can bring in more fresh air than you’d find in a typical indoor dining room, said Linsey Marr, a professor in engineering who studies airborne viruses at Virginia Tech. Still, “individual dining structures are better,” Marr said, although she also noted that she would dine inside one only with people from her own household.
In most private sheds, there is just enough room for a single table, usually seating two to four. Assuming nobody at your table has COVID and the space is adequately aired out between seatings, a shed is a reasonably safe place to eat. It can be relatively safe for the restaurant’s staff, too, if their time inside the shed is kept to a minimum. But eating in a box slightly larger than a coffin takes some getting used to.
“We have a warm bubble waiting for you,” said the host at Cafe du Soleil, a casual French place on the Upper West Side. The cafe has pitched about a dozen clear, toaster-shaped plastic tents on the sidewalk. Inside each one is a table surrounded by woven, all-weather chairs. A few bar-height chairs are out in the open between the tents, where strings of lights dangle overhead.
The host unzipped one flap of my tent so I could step inside. It had been repaired by tape, which ran down one long seam. The bubbles are prone to tearing, one restaurateur told me.
I barely noticed the tape once I’d started in on a pot of mussels and fries, and began listening to the conversations of people around me, who were closer than would have been allowed had we not been sealed up in our space bubbles. It wasn’t quite the same as sitting elbow to elbow at a busy bar, but it was as close as anything I’ve done since March.
The clear, shiny plastic warped and blurred the colored lights. After a few gulps of gin, I had the sensation of having taken a very small dose of a very mild hallucinogen while wearing somebody else’s prescription glasses.
Bubble tents like these weigh very little, an asset when you’re pitching one, but a drawback in high winds, when they have a tendency to take flight. Greenhouses assembled from kits, with aluminum frames and clear, hard polycarbonate windows, are more durable and stable.
I got my first taste of greenhouse dining at HotHouse Fort Greene, which has eight of the structures in a small pedestrian park in front of the restaurant, and plans to construct more. I ordered a can of pilsner and a plate of hot chicken at a counter inside and was shown to my “cabin.”
The sun was shining, but the air inside was not quite as warm as the term “greenhouse effect” would suggest, so I turned up the electric space heater on the table. The extra heat was unnecessary, though, once I bit into the chicken, its crust bright orange with ground chiles and other spices. I spent the next 10 minutes gargling beer, wiping sweat from my face and removing layers of clothing. If you ever need to take off half your clothes in a hurry, I’d recommend against doing it in a small glass box in the middle of a city park.
I enjoyed a little more privacy at Lilia, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, one of three restaurants in the city and another 10 around the country where meals are served inside canvas yurts provided by American Express for customers who use its cards.
The yurts huddle together on the tip of Lilia’s triangular lot, covered in undyed fabric and connected by wooden walkways. Inside, they are simple and uncluttered, with fleece blankets draped over the backs of chairs. Suspended from the conical peak of each yurt is a fixture shaped like a flying saucer that gives off both heat and light.
It’s big step up in style and sophistication from the “Cool Hand Luke” hut where I ate ramen. Then again, the bowl of ramen cost about $10, while fixed-price, family style dinners in Lilia’s yurts cost $125.
On East 65th Street, I ate in a private dining booth on the sidewalk outside Daniel. With red- and white-striped curtains, the booths look like dressing cabins on a Mediterranean beach. The menu, incongruously, is in deep-winter mode. But the mismatch doesn’t matter when you’re faced with Daniel’s pot au feu, the most thoughtfully articulated pot roast in the city, after months of cooking for yourself at home.
Dinner costs $125 at Daniel, too. Such prices were rare over the summer, when outdoor dining spaces were often hammered together overnight. Some restaurants invested in the nicer models of the patio umbrella, and some spent more money on tropical plants, but essentially one outdoor setup looked a lot like the next.
That has changed as restaurants have moved from patios to shelters. A shelter can be furnished, and with furnishing comes a return of some of the markers of class and taste that had been leveled over the summer. Sunshine is free. Interior design costs money.
I don’t begrudge any restaurant charging $100 or more for a sidewalk seat in January. The pandemic has gone on so long, and so little has been done to help the hospitality business. I only wish more sponsors — corporations, business improvement districts, block associations, even governments — would buy and build more cabins, greenhouses and so on.
This would not just be lending a hand to an industry that, incredibly, keeps being asked to make new sacrifices while getting almost nothing in return; it would also be an investment in public safety.
Once a restaurant sets up its yurts or greenhouses, though, it probably needs to change the instructions it gives to servers. The advantage of waiting on people in a small structure is that you can hand over a plate or clear an empty glass quickly, without needing to step into the space and breathe the inside air for very long. Servers don’t get this advantage, though, if they’re asked to check in, refill water glasses and perform all the other minutiae of service as if there weren’t a pandemic going on.
For COVID safety, the combination of fresh air and masks is hard to beat. This is why my favorite cold-weather dining structures are the kotatsu at Dr Clark, in Chinatown. The restaurant built eight kotatsu in October and has just finished putting in seven more.
Following a centuries-old template, these low tables are equipped with a heater under the table surface and a thick fitted blanket; once you’ve taken your shoes off, you swing your feet under the table and drape the blanket across your lap. The upper half of your body is protected by a shelter that uses diagonal slats to cut the wind without stopping air flow. Imagine sitting in an outdoor hot tub with your clothes on but without getting wet.
Now imagine that you are also eating chilled sea urchin and jingisukan, marinated lamb seared on a tabletop griddle that is supposedly modeled on Genghis Khan’s helmet. This calls for a cocktail, followed by sake. Or maybe shochu. They’re gone too quickly, but Dr Clark has Japanese whiskey, too, and, who knows why, a respectable collection of mezcal.
Soon they’ll want the table back. That’s fine. We’ve got all winter.