When Governor Cuomo shut down restaurants in the state, as a long time restaurant reviewer for the Ithaca Times, I found myself with little to write about. Though, during that period, I did write a few feature articles and kept in touch with several restaurateurs. This turned out to be a discouraging activity. I heard all too often about the terribly frustrating experiences of restaurant owners and managers trying—often without success—to get funds for their laid-off employees, loans to keep their businesses viable for an unknown period of time and grappling with their inability to reach a human voice to get guidance.
Now we’ve progressed to Phase 4 and restaurants have been allowed to open: both outdoors and indoors. I thought it would be helpful to Times readers to do an informal survey of what dining looks like in the greater Ithaca area. Frankly, a good portion of my personal friends have expressed concerns about eating inside where the circulation of air is limited and the medical experts have said the spreading of the coronavirus is more likely. Eating outside, where there is unlimited air that circulates freely, is safer. I myself am concerned about eating inside, so my first venture downtown was to visit two restaurants on the 100 block of Aurora Street, recently closed to vehicular traffic. I naively thought that if I ate outside at one restaurant, health issues would be the same as eating at another. I quickly learned that this is not a homogeneous experience. Although several restaurants have added tables for outdoor dining on the newly available pavement, some haven’t opened at all (see Matt Butler’s cover story in the July 1 issue), and they all reflect their management’s interpretation of Governor Cuomo’s news conferences and executive orders. Based on what I have learned, I urge you to choose dining spots based on your own level of risk tolerance. On two consecutive days I had lunch at two restaurants and had two very different experiences.
I had lunch at Simeon’s, an iconic establishment that has been at the same location since September 1977. Located on the corner of the Commons and Aurora Street, they have the advantage of wraparound outdoor table placement. The current owners told me that during the shutdown for the coronavirus, they operated “day by day” and that “although there are many unknowns, and things are frequently changing, we’re doing OK.”
At another establishment, let’s call it Restaurant A, my experience was very different.
Both had well-spaced tables outside and both had a host to seat me. At A, the servers were masked but weren’t wearing gloves; however, at Simeon’s the servers wore masks and gloves. Simeon’s prints about 200 disposable menus per day and recycles them after each use. At Restaurant A, I was offered a laminated menu that was passed from diner to diner. When I ordered mustard at Simeon’s, it was delivered in an individual container. When I ordered mustard at A, a jar of normal sized manufacturer’s mustard was deposited on my table. And
each table at Restaurant A had a normal size bottle of salt and pepper. At Simeon’s, when the hostess wasn’t busy, she wiped down the spots on the door where patrons had pushed it to gain indoor access, and there was a hand sanitizer at the front entrance. I didn’t see any similar effort at A.
The owners of Simeon’s are grateful for the tremendous cooperation they received from local entities. The Ithaca Downtown Alliance, Chamber of Commerce, and Mayor’s office were all proactive in trying to encourage the flourishing of downtown commercial establishments. It was their idea to close “restaurant row” on Aurora Street to traffic to make more space available for outdoor dining. And in Simeon’s case, their outdoor dining capacity now equals their indoor. But wait, there’s more: the restaurateurs themselves got together to facilitate the dining experience for Ithacans who want to eat out. They agreed to stagger their closing dates so that some quality restaurants would always be open: Simeon’s is closed Mondays, the Ithaca Ale House on Tuesdays and Red’s Place and Mahogany Grill on Wednesdays.
Menus at most restaurants have been reduced in offerings. In some cases, the listing of wines, beers and cocktails can be extensive, so it’s not practical to print everything on offer at this point.
There was a problem getting normal food distribution during the shutdown. Now, deliveries are returning to normal and, as they increase, the number of menu offerings increase commensurately. At both Simeon’s and A, I had no difficulty in finding something to order that I liked. There’s still a plethora of variety available and the quantity and quality of the portions served was excellent, as always.
The number of employees, on the other hand, has changed. At Simeon’s, not everyone feels comfortable returning, so they are hiring for both the kitchen and dining rooms.
After this admittedly small and unofficial survey of well-known restaurants in downtown Ithaca, I have concluded that we can’t assume anything or take anything for granted. Each establishment management seems free to interpret guidelines however they want. And in this quickly evolving environment, it seems a good idea for each diner to check out any establishment for themselves. Let the buyer beware based on his/her tolerance for risk.