As outdoor dining comes to a close for us, we are at the mercy of the public and their willingness to follow guidelines for safety in our dining room this winter," says Michael Kelly, proprietor of Newburgh's beloved Liberty Street Bistro, striking a grim tone to match the ominous uncertainty of this winter's dining scene in the Hudson Valley.
Opened 2016, the restaurant draws on Kelly's experience working in some of Manhattan's finest kitchens to dish up masterfully executed, memorable, French-influenced fare in an elegant but laid-back environment. Before COVID, takeout was never in the plans for Kelly's elevated establishment, which subsisted on a bustling stream of Sunday brunchers, happy hour regulars, dinner date duos, and festive groups. But over the past six months, he's had to find ways to evolve his business model while staying true to the bistro's brand. "The financial strains of this moment are unparalleled; we have never been well-geared toward takeout dining, and making that pivot continues to be a new and challenging frontier for us," Kelly says. "We have completely revamped our menu to be more approachable to as many guests as possible." He has also ventured into catering, once a far-off possibility that was fast-tracked thanks to the pandemic's financial pressure.
Last year, Kelly expanded into the next-door space (formerly Cafe Macchiato) to up the restaurant's capacity from 44 to 70—an increase that proved crucial in this era of socially distanced dining. Assuming Kelly is state-sanctioned to do so, he is planning to keep the indoor dining room open through winter at reduced capacity. While he can enforce PPE, cleaning, and safety protocols with his staff, the customers are the big question mark. "I've learned quite quickly not to have expectations," he says. "But our ability to operate—even in this small capacity—correlates directly with the dining public's adherence to rules and safety guidelines."
Kelly's hope-and-a-prayer mentality is about the only option available to restaurants planning to host indoor diners this winter—that and temperature checks and sign-ins sheets for contact tracing. Right now, chefs and restaurateurs across the Hudson Valley like Kelly are wrapping up the end of their busy season while trying to prepare for the expected cold-weather downturn. Winter is always a slow season for upstate restaurants, but with COVID uncertainties, the next few months are a total crapshoot.
Stretching the Outdoor SeasonOther area restaurants, like Essie's, are focusing their short-term efforts on extending their outdoor dining season as long as possible. Essie's chef/owner Brandon Walker just recently started to get back into the swing of his typical service, and he's not about to give it up. Located in Poughkeepsie's Little Italy district, this eatery falls squarely in the farm-to-table, New American tradition with a nod to Walker's Caribbean and Southern heritage. "In the beginning, we modified our menu to more of a quick-serve model, such as dinner combos and sandwiches—it went well and it got us through," Walker says. "Since we've been allowed to have both outdoor and indoor dining, we've been able to slowly revert back to a more a la carte menu. We're currently consulting with our local fire professionals as to what outside heaters are suitable for our setup, and with city officials about what additional structures we could use as the weather changes."
Similarly, in Hudson, Kat Dunn is busy buying space heaters for the patio of her pop-up restaurant Buttercup. The veteran mixologist, who designed the cocktail program for Fish & Game, Backbar, and Rivertown Lodge had been planning to open her own "fast-casual cocktail bar" in a former factory building in Hudson's Prison Alley this summer, when lockdown foiled her plans. In early June, Dunn decided to pivot to a pop-up with a crowd-pleasing menu of summer's quintessential guilty pleasures, from lobster rolls to loaded hot dogs to cocktails.
When Buttercup opened in July, they were exclusively offering takeout. As the infection rates dropped, they allowed people to eat on their patio. On weekends, the outdoor dining area filled with couples, posses, and families. But now, as it gets colder, Dunn has returned to a primarily delivery and take-out model, though Buttercup will remain open to diners on the weekends through the end of the year, with heat lamps on the patio.
Dunn envisions an Aspen vibe. "You go out still dressed in a ski coat and have a delicious cocktail," she says. It's not ideal, she admits, but she thinks of these chillier get-togethers as a much-needed last hurrah before the isolation of another stay-at-home order. "People think we're going to go under lockdown again this winter, whether self-imposed or government-mandated," she says. "So before that, in November and December, people will still go out to meet some friends, knowing they're staying outside, wearing a hat and gloves and drinking warm cocktails."
Land of a Thousand PivotsSince the pandemic arrived on US soil in March, one in six restaurants nationwide has permanently closed, according to a survey released in September by the National Restaurant Association. By national averages, the Hudson Valley seems to have been spared from the worst of this whiplash, with only a few dozen out of thousands of restaurants closing for good. In fact, in the past six months, much more common than news of closures has been the against-all-odds opening of new eateries. Since March, in Kingston alone, six new eateries have opened: Masa Midtown, Buns Burgers, Lunch Nightly, Tortilla Taco Bar, Seasoned Delicious, and Tilda's.
Although the challenges are obvious for restaurants that have had to quickly change after years of routine, the brave newcomers that opened in the midst of the pandemic—who haven't established a firm way of doing business in a pre-COVID world—have had to make massive adjustments since opening. Lunch Nightly in Kingston, for instance, was intended to be a community-centric butcher shop and a small-plates, big-appetite sort of eatery in the heart of Midtown. They opened May 1 with equal parts hope and uncertainty. "Our biggest challenge has been the fact that we've had to focus on being a new baby restaurant that hustles hard to make ends meet during COVID, and we haven't gotten to dive deep into the community relationships, collaborations, and thoughtful parties we set out to foster," says co-owner Sam Strand.
Between the bar and deli setup and the booth opposite, the long, narrow interior space (formerly Peace Nation Cafe) doesn't have a lot of room for socially distanced dining. "This winter, we're probably not going to be able to do regular indoor dining," Strand says. "The COVID numbers suck right now, and we need to remain vigilant. We'll have to focus on being a takeout joint and we'll continue to do nicely plated, packaged dinners; lots of sandwiches, salads, and soups during the day; and some sandwiches at night, as well."
Strand says that Lunch Nightly still plans to maintain its retail and butcher operation, too, which has slowly expanded to include some packaged products, natural wines and ciders, and housemade pantry items like Bolognese, soups and stocks, short rib ragu, and spice mixes. Lunch Nightly has also begun rolling out a CSA-style Meat Box, which includes a grab bag of house-butchered cuts and prepared items, along with cooking suggestions.
"We've all been in the restaurant industry for a while here and have never seen so many regulars on such a consistent basis; we hope to continue to see those faces, but we expect the numbers of people eating our food to shrink," Strand says, matter-of-factly. "We hope that people will continue to get takeout from us, sort of like they're buying into our longevity as a restaurant: Get takeout now, be our forever friend till the end of times because you made our restaurant survive a COVID winter."
Although much will depend on the case numbers as the year comes to an end, the collaboration of restaurant and customer is crucial to surviving the winter—businesses must set certain standards, but it's up to guests to uphold them. That also means it's time for restaurants to get creative once again.
In Hudson, cult classic tropical diner Lil Deb's Oasis has been closed since early pandemic months due to its small interior and a lack out outdoor space. "We miss doing what we do best: making our guests feel like they just walked into the best party, full of people," says Carla Perez-Gallardo, who co-owns Lil' Debs with Hannah Black. "We've been in our space for almost five years and have put a lot of work into it; we mostly just feel homesick."
In place of Lil' Deb's, the team created Fuego 69—a popup in the backyard of nearby Rivertown Lodge dishing up "zing-zangy frisky-fresh pescatarian hippie food hot off the grill." At Fuego 69, 69 cents from each menu item is donated to racial justice organizations and community causes each week.
As a way to incorporate an alternate stream of revenue, Lil Deb's has also expanded into the world of catering, specifically for holiday parties and the growing trend of pod parties—small, isolated groups quarantining together. "We want to provide our amazing customers as many opportunities as possible to bring home some of our flavors, wines, and vibes this holiday season," she says. "This year has clarified for us what it means to be a small business; although it's been challenging, it's also been inspiring, heartening, and illuminating. Yet again, we are reminded of how blessed we are to have such a generous, present, and collaborative community around us."
While Fuego 69 allowed the team to continue serving food safely outdoors throughout the summer and provided a welcome source of income, as the weather cools off abruptly, it's time to move on. "Although we will not be opening for traditional indoor table service this winter, we do have some top-secret plans in the works for the indoors that we will reveal soon," Perez-Gallardo says mysteriously. "Stay tuned to our Instagram."'
Stay tuned—a fitting motto as we all enter another holding pattern, waiting to see what happens next, what direction the case numbers trend in a pandemic that is so much the product of each of our individual actions and yet seems to always find a way to make us feel helpless at the mercy of everyone else.