By Dean Moses
Bayside’s Bell Boulevard has always been a bastion of life in the community thanks to its bustling bars, restaurants, and street fairs. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the last few months have seen the end of the thoroughfare, leaving only empty streets and eateries offering takeout and delivery, with other establishments being closed outright.
It has been a difficult year for both businesses and patrons alike, but the methodical clouds could be lifting for the summer thanks to the advent of phase two in New York’s reopening.
Although the sidewalks are a little more muted and the roadways are a little less dense with traffic, laughter and smiles can once again be found along the Bell Boulevard strip as a semblance of normalcy has returned to Bayside.
In accordance with the phase two initiative, restaurants and bars can now serve food and beverages through outdoor dining. Many in the area have erected private banquet zones beneath the shade of awnings and surrounded by custom dividers in order to help put diners at ease while also giving them privacy.
With business back in effect, owners have taken the opportunity to bring their unique ambiance to the sidewalk, Chef David Arias, creator of Spanglish NYC (4004 Bell Blvd.), designed and decorated wooden frames with an eye-catching urban graffiti style.
“We wanted to make something different to get everyone’s attention. It’s really positive that everybody is now outside. Everybody is trying to get life back again, so we tried to be very creative in the things that we did. We are trying to do everything better for our customers. We get a lot of support from the neighbors. We are doing good now,” said Charlotte Zubieta, Arias’ mother.
Others like Maria’s Mediterranean (38-11 Bell Blvd.) dressed its setup with vibrant, potted plants that hang from 18th-century-esque electric lamps. Although it may not seem like it from the tables filled with individuals enjoying their meals, it was a long, hard road for owner Maria Petridis to reach this point.
“We are excited to reopen. The pandemic was a difficult experience because we did not offer takeout service before. We are not a takeout place, so we had to transition to do that. We worked with only me, my husband, and one other person. We tried hard to try to survive and, thank God, we did it,” Petridis said.
The business owners themselves aren’t the only ones excited about phase two. After long weeks quarantining and social distancing, the ability to sit and eat in a fresh setting can go a long way, even for Bayside natives like Bruce and Melissa Barnes, who were born and raised in the neighborhood.
“This is new for us, being on Bell Boulevard eating outside by the storefront because most places have a rooftop or courtyard. In Manhattan, outdoor eating is a bit different because of cars and foot traffic,” Bruce Barnes said while enjoying cocktail shrimp beneath the shade of Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse (3940 Bell Blvd.).
“It’s fantastic to see all of the restaurants open, I just hope we don’t get a resurgence of COVID-19 cases. It’s good to see that some of the small businesses are making money again, and hopefully, they are able to survive,” Melissa Barnes said. “It takes away from a place when you see store closures. When you drive by and see so many places closed it is depressing.”
With all the fanfare about street dining, it is overlooked by many that buildings with the capacity to offer rooftop services are now permitted to do so (allowing only 50 percent of its capacity). This creates a hybrid feeling between outdoor and indoor eating, reclaiming some much-needed normalcy for everybody involved.
Cajun-themed bar and grill Bourbon Street (40-12 Bell Blvd.) has reopened, offering both curbside and rooftop services. To accommodate additional customers, Bourbon Street filed for permits that allow them to use the parking space in front of the restaurant to serve customers. But with the expansion also comes a lot of new challenges.
“We really have to just keep on top of all of our guidelines and really refresh ourselves each day and refresh all of the staff as well, so we are retraining them as well as retraining ourselves,” said manager Dan Geoghan. “On top of that, it’s also working into a new way of life. We haven’t had an outdoor service like this out front. We have our rooftop, which is great, but now out front, we are working through our kitchen in limited space and we are also doing construction.”
Due to employees’ concerns about working during the coronavirus, keeping a full staff has also been an issue.
“It’s a little trying right now. A lot of staff members are worried about coming back too early. It’s been hectic trying to find the staff. We are getting new staff in and trying to train them and get them acclimated to our way of doing business and catering to everyone’s needs,” Geoghan added.
Even so, customers are happy to be out and enjoy a meal with friends and family. With terms like social distancing becoming a life model as we head into our new normal, the prospect of once again reentering society to enjoy meals in the presence of other human beings presents great appeal.
“It’s so amazing. I was just saying to the staff that I am so happy to just talk to people and to interact because I’ve been cooped up for so long and I feel like we are all nicer to each other now because it’s human interaction. Everyone is more friendly than I’ve ever seen them,” one Bourbon Street customer said while soaking in the sun alongside a friend on the restaurant’s rooftop garden. “We are very happy to be out.”