For many Columbia students, the last time they ate indoors at a restaurant was in early March. Delivery apps like Seamless and UberEats have become their best friends, along with cherished recipes for banana bread and chocolate chip cookies.
Yet as Morningside Heights restaurants continue to suffer due to bans on indoor dining and restrictive regulations on outdoor dining, the joys of conversing with staff, eating delicious food in cozy spaces, and venturing to new neighborhoods in search of the best restaurants all seem like distant memories.
Along Amsterdam Avenue, many students’ favorite spots continue to prepare their specialties like tacos, pad thai, and pho, although their entrances are blocked by a table to prevent COVID-19 virus transmission. Tables are stacked against a wall inside, kitchens look emptier with fewer staff members, and some menus are revamped for takeout only. In some restaurants, the lights are off, never to turn on again.
Nationwide, more than 110,000 restaurants, which have been open for an average of 16 years, have permanently closed, accounting for one out of every six restaurants nationwide. Many New York institutions served their last meals months ago, while others may be serving customers for the last time tomorrow, next week, or next month. Factors like economics, xenophobia, and unequal dissemination of information concerning loan programs have caused hundreds of restaurants and small businesses to shutter indefinitely.
Long-time residents have been among the greatest supporters of neighborhood classics like Koronet Pizzeria, Tom’s Restaurant, and V&T Restaurant & Pizzeria. With 16 percent of restaurants that have closed nationwide being in business for over 30 years, though, community support can only help these businesses so much.
Morningside Heights staples like Szechuan Garden, Calle Ocho, and Marlow Bistro have closed temporarily, as have some West Harlem businesses like Floridita. While 169 out of 190 restaurants in the Columbia area remain open, those that have maintained business during the summer and fall still struggle to bring in anywhere near the revenue from pre-pandemic times.
The cost of staying open for some small businesses like Bob’s Your Uncle and Arts & Crafts Beer Parlor, both neighborhood bars, would exceed any money brought in by takeout orders or outdoor dining in the cold, so both have gone into a “hibernation” for the winter.
Added costs from maintaining a small outdoor dining setup and keeping some waiters around have also pushed some restaurants to focus on takeout. However, some restaurants have invested in creative and successful outdoor dining setups—attracting diners from all across the city.
Cafe Du Soleil has gained a lot of attention for its over one dozen dining bubbles, allowing for socially distanced and private dining experiences. Le Monde’s outdoor dining stretches across half the block, seating at least 16 tables along Broadway. Other spots like Pisticci and The Expat have taken advantage of their spacious exteriors for often-crowded outdoor dining.
Outdoor dining is an option at 70 restaurants around Columbia, although most are not as spacious or elaborate. Along Broadway, spots like Wu + Nussbaum, Mama’s TOO!, and Tom’s have a few tables scattered outside, while on Amsterdam Avenue, Amity Hall Uptown and Hungarian Pastry Shop fill the road with tables on weekends while the street is closed to vehicular traffic.
Some restaurants have even opened their doors for the first time during the pandemic. Within just the last few weeks, eateries like Anar, Miss Saigon, Trufa Pizzeria, and The Calaveras Cafe have joined the Morningside Heights restaurant scene. Other spots like Hex & Company are relocating to larger spaces in preparation for a return to indoor dining.
Morningside Heights has been lucky enough to keep most of its small businesses, even with lower-than-normal revenues and no indoor dining. But what does this mean for the neighborhood’s restaurant scene?
Large percentages of these businesses’ revenues have disappeared with students scattered around the world and students on campus choosing not to dine outdoors until they get vaccinated. Many restaurants, though, have decided to fight through the winter and hope for upticks in business in the spring, even if every day this winter is an economic loss.
Restaurants provide not just food, but an experience. Restaurants would not go through the trouble of hiring quality waiters, ornately decorating their interiors, or crafting specialty menus if this was not the case. From the hole-in-the-wall feel of Acosta Restaurant to the modern ambiance of Serafina, to the more traditional atmosphere of Happy Hot Hunan, each restaurant creates an in-person multifaceted journey for diners.
Now, diners getting takeout only see one or two people, an oftentimes-cluttered decor, and their food in circular and rectangular containers rather than beautifully presented dishes.
As critic Ligaya Mishan writes in The New York Times, “What is food without the story of its making; what is a city without its people?” When Columbia students only see the finished product or the delivery man impatiently waiting outside Wien Hall, they often miss the story—the cultural diversity of the Columbia area.
A simple conversation with a restaurant owner can make a great difference in how students view the world. A simple look around a space’s decor can distract students from their chaotic lives. A bite of freshly-prepared chapati bread, soup dumplings, or lamb kebabs over rice can lead students to connect more closely with different cultures. But now, all people can do is wait.
Most students have never heard of hidden gems like Middle Eastern spot Jerusalem Restaurant, Malaysian-Chinese restaurant Malaysia Grill, or Southern eatery Freda’s Cuisine. Chances are, the number of students who know Harlem spots like Senegalese joints Pikine and Ponty Bistro and old-school Southern spot Charles’ Pan Fried Chicken is even lower.
The pandemic has restricted many Columbia students from engaging more closely with Columbia’s dining scene, withmany students flocking to chains like Dig Inn or Chipotle due to their familiarity and high placement on delivery apps. For neighborhood ethnic staples, though, the pandemic has hit them particularly hard, especially those serving cuisines that people rarely associate with delivery.
Perhaps indoor dining will return soon. Perhaps students will become comfortable enough to try new restaurants or travel to new areas. Perhaps restaurants will reopen and continue serving their best dishes. But for now, Columbia students may have to live with food in plastic containers eaten silently at their desks with plastic silverware—hopefully from a venue fighting every day to bring their history and experiences back to Morningside Heights.