Hey, buddy, you using that sidewalk?

Restaurants taking advantage of closed storefronts for al fresco dining

Cascabel Taqueria, near the corner of West 108th Street and Broadway (Alexi Friedman)
Diners of Fumo restaurant, above and below, near the corner of West 108th Street and Broadway. The eatery set up tables outside the shuttered Cascabel Taqueria and a convenience store. (Alexi Friedman/TRD)

As New York City entered phase two of its reopening earlier this week, the sidewalk space outside a shuttered bodega on the Upper West Side was suddenly abuzz.

Near the corner of West 108th Street and Broadway, the Italian restaurant Fumo had expanded its outdoor dining area to the space in front of its closed neighbors.

Fuomo, near the corner of West 108th Street and Broadway

The city was already plagued by vacant storefronts when the coronavirus forced more shops to shut. But now that restaurant dining is returning — albeit in a modified form — the frontage of those empty stores is proving to be good space for outdoor dining.

“It’s a good opportunity for restaurants to get additional tables and generate the additional revenue they so desperately need,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance. “And it brings a little bit more life to an otherwise empty streetscape.”

Meridian Retail Leasing’s James Famularo said he went to an empty store on the Upper East Side earlier this week that he was planning to show and was surprised to see that the restaurant next door, JG Mellon, had expanded in front of it.

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“We’re seeing that a lot, actually,” he said, noting that restaurants across the city are getting creative about providing outdoor seating.

The city issued guidelines that allow seating on streets through Sept. 8, the day after Labor Day. Sidewalk seating will continue through the end of October. Pedestrian plazas and parking lots are also being transformed into dining areas, often separated by barriers.

According to the city’s rules, though, restaurants are not allowed to expand in front of their neighbors, even if they have permission. “Restaurants can only use the space in front of their own storefront,” said a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office.

It doesn’t appear, however, that City Hall will be penalizing restaurants for expanding beyond their frontage, unless someone makes a 311 complaint. In the case of a closed storefront, that seems unlikely to happen: For many, al fresco dining is the first sense of normalcy they have experienced after months of lockdown.

De Blasio seems to recognize that. “We just said [to restaurants], Whatever the rules were in the past, we’re waiving all the rules,” he said at a virtual conference of mayors yesterday. “All you have to do is tell us you want to do it and you’re in.”

Contact Rich Bockmann at rb@therealdeal.com or 908-415-5229