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Restaurants Reel and Rally in New York’s West Village: The Final Night and the Day After

By Karen Rempel

Two days ago, on Monday, March 16, Notify NYC announced that “Starting tonight at 8 PM all movie theaters, small theaters, nightclubs, and commercial gyms will close until further notice. All restaurants, bars and cafes will be limited to takeout or delivery services only.” Sign up for this free NYC service which provides to-the-minute alerts on missing vulnerable adults, storm warnings, police activity, traffic blockages, and now, COVID-19 communiqués. [The latest on March 18: Grab & Go breakfast/lunch available for any student at the entrance of every DOE school building from 7:30am-1:30pm. More: NYC.gov/schools.]

How Restaurants Are Responding

Michael Dolinski, General Manager of Wallsé and Chef Kurt Gutenbrunner. Photo by Karen Rempel

Michael Dolinski, General Manager, and Chef Kurt Gutenbrunner of Wallsé. Photo by Karen Rempel.

Some bars and restaurants had already decided to close before it became mandatory. We’ve all heard about the Union Square Hospitality Group closures. Gotham Bar and Grill closed on Saturday, March 14. See this Eater New York article about Gotham’s last night.

Many restaurants, such as Wallsé on West 11th Street, are going to do their best to keep feeding the Village by implementing takeout and delivery. Michael Dolinski, General Manager of Wallsé, said, “We’ve never seen anything like this before. This is a restaurant that came through Hurricane Sandy. We came through 9/11. We came through the financial crisis in 2008. But we were always in charge of our own ability to open or not be open. It was always our decision based on our own capabilities. So our chef was here on 9/11 and he closed that day, but the next day he was open. Hurricane Sandy, we were closed because of the power outage here, for 10 days, 12 days, but once the power came back on, we cleaned and re-opened. The 2008 financial crisis, sure, the crisis hurt our bottom line, but we kept going. Now, this, what do we do? The way we dealt with crisis before, we press ahead, and tomorrow we open up. We’re not allowed to do that right now. It’s a very different feeling, a very different crisis now.”

Chef Kurt Gutenbrunner agrees that extreme measures are needed. He said, “9/11 was different because it was only us, it was an attack on us here. Right now it’s global, it’s a whole different story.” Michael adds, “Fundamentally the need to shut down is temporary. It’s an honest attempt from government entities to do the right thing and protect the general public… The way to get through the crisis is to stick together.”

Read on for more details about how restaurants in the West Village are responding, some of the safe online alternatives to gyms and jazz clubs, and how patrons felt the last night before the restaurants closed…

The Last Night

Tacos de Pescado and a margarita at La Contenta Oeste. Photo by Karen Rempel.
Tacos de Pescado and a margarita at La Contenta Oeste. Photo by Karen Rempel.

Word had been circulating about the possibility of city-wide closures since Sunday night, but it was still a shock when the announcement came. I felt a tremendous urge to grab up every possible moment of bonhomie and camaraderie in local bars and restaurants, and went on a bit of a spree. I stopped in at the 8th Street Wine Cellar (28 West 8th Street) for a quick glass of wine before my 5:15 PM Barre3 class. There was only one other customer in the Wine Cellar, but the bartender was hopeful that things would pick up in the final hours leading up to the 8 PM closure. The other patron and I sat at opposite ends of the bar from each other. It was bleak.

Next, I went to my Barre3 class, at their fantastic second-floor studio on the corner of West 8th Street and Sixth Avenue, with views of the fascinating passersby below from the windows at the barre. I made the discovery that a one-minute plank is actually easier after a glass of wine! There were only four other students in the class. Usually the 5:15 PM class is a full-capacity 27 students. (The studio had taken extraordinary sanitary measures and limited class sizes to allow for safe social distancing, but that is moot now given the required closure.) Fortunately, their business model already provides for online classes, so their extremely loyal patrons will be able to stay connected and take classes at home via their web program. But the sense of loss was palpable as we regular customers and staff contemplated the absence of our almost-daily connection via music and communal fitness.

After Barre3, I wanted to go to my local hang, Bar Six at 502 Sixth Avenue, between West 12th Street and West 13th Street, but it was already closed, so I backtracked to another local favorite, La Contenta Oeste, at the corner of Sixth Avenue and West 11th Street. There weren’t many patrons at the tables, but the bar stools were mostly occupied. I was lucky enough to find an empty stool at the end of the counter. I had a margarita and La Contenta’s world class tacos de pescado (fish tacos), while chatting to the couple on the next stools. They were in town from Boston because their son was having surgery, but they were unable to visit him due to virus precautions. The mother is a gynecologist, and she said she will be pressed into duty as an emergency room physician as soon as she returns to Boston. There was a feel of bewilderment in the air as patrons tried to grapple with the coming closure of bars, restaurants, and all cultural events in New York.

It was nearing 8 PM, and I thought it would be time to go home, but my friend Hannah Reimann texted that she was going to Wallsé for a quick glass of wine. I paid my bill and hopped into a taxi to catch one more Village moment before the end of life as we know it. Wallsé was at a little less than half capacity, as per the pre-closure regulations. I joined Hannah for a glass of wine, and had discussions with a few regulars from the neighborhood. Allan and Peter reflected that there was a mania in the air like Berlin in the early 1930s, as depicted in the film Cabaret. Amidst stunning artwork by Julian Schnabel, while sharing one last amazing dessert, we spoke of The Year of Living Dangerously, and hatched a plot to open a speakeasy.

In a creative surge inspired by the wine and conversation, I called my friend Emanuele Nigro, to see if he might want to open a speakeasy in the cellar of Osteria 57. He invited me to come by for a glass of wine, but pointed out the problems with my plan. No reputable restaurant will jeopardize its license by opening an illegal speakeasy! Osteria 57 is responding sensitively to the crisis, with a special delivery menu and discounted prices for the rest of March.

Undaunted by reason, I went next to Smalls, certain that it would still be open in keeping with its reputation of being the late-night cellar that all we desperados can shelter in. Owner Spike Wilner is a realist, and Smalls was shuttered, though a few hopeful patrons were clustered out front. (If you need a jazz fix during this time of closures, tune into SmallsLive, jazz broadcast on the web with regular nightly performances that you can watch and listen to in the safety and comfort of your home.) I spoke to the cabbie idling at the curb, and next thing I remember, I was in his cab, going down to Chinatown to look for noted speakeasies. We drove past a few that he knew, but they were closed. No bouncers on the sidewalk screening wannabe patrons. No one at all. The streets were deserted. I got out of the cab to look at the popular, edgy Mission Chinese Food at 171 East Broadway, attracted by a notice on its door:

All Delivery personnel
Ring doorbell. Show order number.
DO NOT come down the stairs, we will
bring your food order upstairs.
THANK YOU!

There was no denying it. New York City is closed for the duration.

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The Day After

However, the next day dawned sunny and bright, and New York is nothing if not resilient. After a few moments crying about the loss of all that I love about New York, I took to the streets of the West Village to see what’s doing. Here are some highlights of our favorite places and how they are adapting to the new restrictions.

Taïm’s takeout is doing a booming business. Photo by Karen Rempel.
Taïm’s takeout is doing a booming business. Photo by Karen Rempel.

The day after the closure, Taïm on 222 Waverly Place was doing a brisk business in takeout falafel. “It’s the best!” a regular customer said while dining on a plastic tray on the bench outside. Staff take orders through the door while maintaining the prescribed six feet of social distance. Customers wait near the curb for their orders.

Revelation Gallery notice

Next door at 224 Waverly Place, the Revelation Gallery is considering extending its regular gallery hours since heavy hitters like Whitney, MOMA, and the Met have closed. Posted hours are Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, 10 am to 3 pm. The gallery is providing safety by limiting visitors to 10 persons at a time. Currently on display is “Shadow Play,” an exhibit of altered images by yours truly, Karen Rempel. There is also a selection of Dusty Berke’s photos that were originally published in “Karen’s Quirky Style” in this paper. Stroll in to get your art fix.

Tartine, at the famous corner of West 11th Street and West 4th Street, looks ominously papered shut, but the notice on their door says they are simply closed until March 22nd for repairs and spring cleaning. It is a shocking disparity from the night before, when I passed by and saw people drinking wine in the candlelit interior.

Tartine was silver-papered overnight. Photo by Karen Rempel.
Tartine was silver-papered overnight. Photo by Karen Rempel.

Wallsé is a Michelin-starred West Village institution of fine dining at the corner of West 11th Street and Washington Street. They are not ordinarily set up for takeout and delivery, but General Manager Michael Dolinski and Chef Kurt Gutenbrunner [pictured at the top of this article] are devising a stylish limited takeout and delivery menu for loyal neighborhood customers, including a well-priced bottle of wine to accompany your schnitzel and spaetzle.

Neighbors outside Philip Marie on Hudson Street
Neighbors outside Philip Marie on Hudson Street. Photo by Karen Rempel.

You may not be able to enjoy their private dining room in the cellar, but Philp Marie, at the corner of West 11th Street and Hudson Street is prominently advertising their “Take Out & Delivery with Beer, Wine, Cocktails, and Food.” Restaurants are permitted to parlay their liquor licenses into takeout and delivery options, as long as what they offer is what they are currently licensed for, and follows their licensed, regular hours of business. The outlook is not quite as bleak as we thought! You can order in, with cocktails and all, and then dine with your friends via FaceTime or Skype.

Other restaurants are simply closing their doors and hoping to reopen when the pandemic is over. Café Cluny at West 12th Street and West 4th Street is one such, stating that “Closing the restaurant is in the best interest and well being of our customer community and the Cluny staff,” though the notice on their door adds that they hope to develop a delivery and pick-up service in the near future.

Next Steps: Keep Strolling and Take Away or Order In

The scene on the Hudson River on Tuesday, the day after. Photo by Karen Rempel.
The scene on the Hudson River on Tuesday afternoon, the day after. Photo by Karen Rempel.

The current best advice is to go forth for groceries, medicine, and exercise (unless you need to self-quarantine). People are taking this seriously.

Bleecker Street looks devastated. Photo by Karen Rempel.
Bleecker Street is deserted.

Bleecker Street looks devastated, but the Hudson River Park is bustling with walkers, cyclists, scooters, strollers, and dogs—very much the usual scene.

Similarly, the St. Vincent’s Triangle Park at 7th Avenue and West 12th Street is filled with people enjoying the March sunshine. Fresh air and sunshine is the best thing for reviving wilted spirits. But if you must stay in, stay connected using all of the tools of our modern age. And let’s all help support our local restaurants by taking advantage of their delivery and takeout options. New Yorkers together, New York forever.

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New Yorkers enjoy the sunshine in St. Vincent’s Triangle Park, also home of the NYC AIDS Memorial and across the street from the 9/11 Tiles Memorial, visible in the background. Photo by Karen Rempel.
New Yorkers enjoy the sunshine in St. Vincent’s Triangle Park, also home of the NYC AIDS Memorial and across the street from the 9/11 Tiles Memorial, visible in the background. Photo by Karen Rempel.

 

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