DineOut nonprofit looks to redesign NYC eateries for outdoor dining

When New York City officials announced it would be fast-tracking applications for outdoor dining on June 19, Melba’s, a popular comfort-food restaurant in Harlem, was ready to serve 62 people three days later — its first-ever open-air foray.

Owner Melba Wilson’s new seating arrangement — set up in just six hours — accommodates 17 white square bistro tables with each of them separated by large planters or short, plexiglass walls designed to maximize coronavirus safety.

What’s more, most diners coming for Wilson’s specials such as Southern fried chicken & eggnog waffles do so under either a shady pavilion or white umbrellas on the sidewalk.

Wilson is one of several restaurateurs getting a lift from a new nonprofit group created by architect David Rockwell’s Rockwell Group and the NYC Hospitality Alliance that has received funding from the likes of billionaire Bill Ackman and actor Daniel Stern, best-known as a comic villain in the movie “Home Alone.”

The new group, called the DineOut NYC project, also is working on outdoor-seating setups for Bronx restaurants Ceetay and Hudson Smokehouse; Brooklyn’s Negril BK in Park Slope; Queens restaurant Pa’Nash; and Staten Island’s The Craft House and Kills Boro Brewing Co.

Photos of its work, which includes pavilions with separate dining cubbies that can sit on the street or sidewalk, are to appear on Rockwell Group’s Web site in the coming weeks as inspiration for other restaurateurs to follow.

Each location shares similar design concepts but Negril BK, for example, will feature yellow awning on its pavilions to go with the restaurant’s logo as well as bar areas. The Bronx restaurants will focus more on sidewalk dining instead of street dining because neighborhood parking space is limited.

“We want to be respectful of the communities and their specific needs,” Rockwell said.

In Harlem, Melba’s new outdoor space, which makes use of street parking and sidewalks, has allowed Wilson to start drawing big crowds again, including Mayor de Blasio.

“I have been walking around and talking to people and about 70 percent are from the neighborhood but also from Queens and Brooklyn and downtown and Connecticut,” she said. “Some saw the mayor at the restaurant and they wanted to come. He was here the first day it opened [on Monday, June 22].”

Melba’s only did 72 percent of its pre-COVID business in the first week, but that’s with 47 fewer seats than her indoor operation.

The restaurant’s hours are longer — from noon to midnight instead of 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., and she says guests are lingering longer than they did when there were sporting events, Broadway shows, bars and parties to rush off to.

“We found that people want to sit in fellowship over a meal with friends and family, which they haven’t been able to do,” Wilson said, which prompted her to stop taking reservations because she couldn’t predict when diners would leave.

“We have to find a way to navigate that while making our guests feel comfortable and welcome,” she said.

West Elm provided the furniture, string lighting, umbrellas and planters for Melba’s, and The Work Room donated the awnings and the plants came from Sweetbrook Nursery & Garden Center.

“It’s so beautiful,” Wilson said. “One woman said she had never seen anything outdoors like this. ‘These are things we only see downtown, not in brown and beige communities,’ she said. “We all had tears in our eyes. This helps rebuild communities and creates jobs, and that is invaluable. There is so much love and support, I am so grateful.”

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