Why Some of New York’s Snazziest Dining Sheds Are Headed for the Dumps

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This is Street Wars, a weekly series on the battle for space on New York’s streets and sidewalks.

On a breezy Friday evening at Indochine, a restaurant on Lafayette Street in Manhattan, light from the setting sun filtered through wooden shutters as a young woman sipped a lychee saketini and a party of six ordered a bottle of rosé.

Leaves on dozens of potted plants swayed. Lively music wafted from speakers. As a waiter approached with a plate of fried spring rolls, a shaggy dog walked by and looked inside, curiously.

And then the harsh sound of a fire truck horn momentarily drowned out all chatter and thoughts.

Because we were not actually inside Indochine, but instead in the restaurant’s “tropical cabana,” an elaborate dining shed erected on the sidewalk in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

This is not one of the misshapen, graffiti-covered rat graveyards you see around the city. It has sliding doors, heaters, ceiling fans, speakers, security cameras and bamboo-caged light fixtures. The music is from a calmer playlist than the one inside the restaurant. Under the lush living greenery lining the back wall, there are cushioned benches, with banana leaf-print throw pillows.

It is a sexy, transportative space to feast on sticky rice and spare ribs.

And its days are numbered.

After the pandemic hit, restaurants in New York City simultaneously saved their businesses and transformed the city’s dining experience by erecting dining sheds, some more lovely than others.

Like a lot of things on New York City’s streets, the sheds have been contentious. Some residents have complained that they generate noise and trash, diminishing the city’s quality of life. A group of individuals has asked the city to do an environmental impact study of the program. The issue is still pending before the courts.

In 2022, Mayor Eric Adams announced a permanent outdoor dining program — with a new set of rules. Structures on the sidewalk cannot be fully enclosed, and dining on the street will not be possible in the winter, from Nov. 30 to March 31.

The new program also calls for a standardized design. The city wants to make sure drivers and pedestrians can see around the dining areas, that restaurant workers can clean around and under them, and that those in the street can be dismantled at the end of the season for snow removal.

Businesses must apply for a license to offer outdoor dining; the fee is $1,050 for a sidewalk cafe or a roadway cafe and $2,100 if applying for both — and is good for four years. Additionally, there is a public hearing fee, a security deposit and a revocable consent fee, which varies depending on how much space the restaurant will be using and its location. The high-rent areas of Manhattan are the most expensive.

Restaurants already participating in the city’s outdoor dining program must apply for a new setup by Aug. 3 — or take their dining sheds down. By November, all of the original dining sheds must be dismantled.

“The program that sprang up out of necessity has matured,” said Meera Joshi, the deputy mayor for operations. “Now we have standards to ensure that all outdoor dining structures are beautiful and well-maintained, and that they work with our overall streetscape to transform what it feels like to be outside in New York City for the better.”

She summed up the city’s goal succinctly: “No more shabby sheds.”

The Indochine cabana, while decidedly not shabby, does not comply with the new rules.

Jean-Marc Houmard, one of the restaurant’s owners, said Indochine would most likely not install the city-approved, standardized setup. “New York is not a cookie cutter kind of place, and every situation is so different,” he said.

Besides, for Indochine, it would be somewhat of a downgrade; according to Houmard, they spent more than $80,000 on the cabana.

“It needed to be enticing enough for people to want to sit out there on Lafayette,” said Houmard, who started working at Indochine as a waiter in 1986 and worked his way up to manager and then owner. “I wanted it to look like a little bit of a tropical fantasy outside of the restaurant.”

He’s not the only one who will be pained by seeing his creation dismantled.

Outside of the Gee Whiz Diner in Tribeca is a charming green structure built by Ron Britt, who is currently trying to sell it via Facebook Marketplace.

Britt is a Local 52 carpenter for movie sets who lives near the restaurant. The diner’s original shed, erected on the fly by the restaurant’s owner and kitchen staff, was “kind of decrepit,” Britt said, so he volunteered to improve upon it. “I said, ‘I could make this thing cute.’”

He whipped up a mini pavilion, with a high-quality aluminum floor and paneled walls. “I was kind of going for a Central Park revivalist feel,” he said.

Britt is asking $5,000.

“It would make a really terrific she shed, or lakeside hangout,” he said. “It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever built.” Britt would be happy to dismantle it and deliver it to someone’s property, he said. “A lot of movie productions are in limbo, and I could use some work.”

If no one buys it, Britt says he plans to “saw it into bite size pieces, and away it goes to a landfill.”

Indochine’s cabana will soon be trash as well.

“Unfortunately it’s just going to go to a dumpster,” Houmard said.

Even the pillows? He laughed. “I’ll keep the pillows.”

“We’ve got so many compliments on it that it is a little bit sad to have to take it down eventually,” he said. “But I guess it’s fine. Everything is a cycle in New York.”

For years, eating outside in New York City has offered a front-row seat to one of the best free shows in the world: the city itself.

In 1934, two society ladies, Mrs. Natalie Van Vleck and Mrs. Thelma Chrysler Foy, were snapped having cocktails at a tiny table near Sixth Avenue and Central Park South.

In another photo from 1934, dapper diners enjoyed eating on the sidewalk outside of a Harlem restaurant. The caption reads: “Paris influence invades Harlem. Photo shows one of the first sidewalk cafes opened in Harlem. This one is on 7th Avenue, the ‘Broadway’ of Harlem.”

A photo from 1975 depicts an Afghan hound joining diners at O. Henry’s Steak House in Greenwich Village. The New York Public Library has an undated copy of the menu, on which a sliced sirloin steak costs $4.50.

As a Times reporter wrote of sidewalk dining in 1933:

No one will pretend that New York is the ideal city for outdoor dining. It is gritty even in the Village gardens where meals have been served outdoors in the summer for years. It is grittier on the sidewalks. On lower Fifth Avenue the gunfire and racket of motors, trucks and surface cars shatter the elegance of postprandial chatter. Nor is the service brilliant. The kitchens and taprooms are so far from the sidewalks that even a seven course is subject to frequent delays. At best, dining on the sidewalk under these conditions is a pleasure that must be tolerably seasoned with fancy.

The writer added: “It is the idea that counts, and the idea of the sidewalk cafe in New York is genius.”

Enjoying our Street Wars series? Tell us what you like or how we could improve:

From the streetwars@nytimes inbox:

The car has become such a unquestionable feature of American life that we fail to see the utter lawlessness of these SUVs/trucks that rush about everywhere and all day — rolling through stop signs, breaking posted speed limits, tailgating, passing bikes on two-lane roads with no visibility due to to curves.

I am a supporter of micro-taxation on speed limits and failure to heed traffic signs. Kind of like E-ZPass.

Slide through a stop sign — pay 50 cents automatically. This could be extended to speed limits on interstates. It’s a simple computer calculation from exit to exit. You speed, you pay.

— Andy Davis, Brattleboro, Vt.

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