It still took a few weeks before I wrote any reviews. At first, I worried that any opinion of mine would be unfair when restaurants were trying so hard to adapt to the new reality. Eventually, I understood that that was exactly what would make the reviews worth writing. Good food in a pandemic was great; great food seemed like a miracle, and I was finding great food all around.
My pandemic reviews note the ways that restaurants have trimmed menus and simplified dishes, but even the shorter, stripped-down versions had a lot to praise. There was something that got to me about these small businesses — some of which had opened in the pandemic, all of which were fighting for survival — trying to bring New Yorkers some joy while keeping them healthy. I didn’t want to just report on it. I wanted to bang a drum so people would pay attention.
The decision not to put stars on the reviews, as The Times has since the 1960s, was easy. Formerly, I tried to make the stars reflect how close any given restaurant came to being an ideal version of itself. But in the pandemic, there were no ideal restaurants, only places that were making it up as they went along.
Almost everything about outdoor dining appealed to me: the street life, the flower pots, the shoestring architecture of in-street platforms. Even the weather played along, staying mostly dry and temperate nearly through the end of December. But there was no question that by Christmas it was getting too cold to dine al fresco.
In my reporter mode, I had been told by scientists, airflow engineers and other experts how Covid-19 is transmitted, and all last summer and fall I felt fairly certain that eating outdoors could be relatively safe for everyone. (Some public-health experts believe that now, even outdoor dining in New York City is unsafe while the local risk of Covid transmission remains very high.) I did not have the same certainty about dining indoors or about some of the plywood structures I call enclosed porches, particularly their windows and doors, which are closed so they have almost no ventilation. I have walked away from several of those.
I wanted to keep reviewing restaurants, but I didn’t want to go back into their dining rooms both because of the risk and because I was afraid readers would take it as an all-clear signal. When the governor halted indoor dining again in December, my selfish reaction was relief. Then I briefly got depressed. How would restaurants survive? And how would I keep writing about them?
One answer had already started to appear on sidewalks and streets in the form of small greenhouses, huts, tents and yurts. Inside these personal dining rooms, you can (and should) sit just with people from your own household. If the restaurant thoroughly airs the space out between seatings, any germs you breathe in should be the same ones that are bouncing around your home. Many restaurants instruct their servers to stay outside the structures as much as possible, though some don’t.