Sichuan Hot Pot Cusine, on Chinatown’s Pell Street, currently serves meals at six tables outside on weekdays.
On weekends, Pell Street is closed to traffic, so Sichuan Hot Pot Cusine adds an additional five tables that extend into the roadway.
But the restaurant’s outdoor set-up, in the shadow of a “no-standing anytime” sign, does not adhere to the city Department of Transportation’s requirements. Owner Kevin Zhang, whose operation DOT cited as “non-compliant” on Aug. 19, said he has no alternative other than to forge on.
“I know it’s not going to be approved, but we’ve got to do this,” he said. “We have to pay the bills, we have to pay the rent, we have to pay the employees. We got no choice.”
On Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the number of eateries participating in the Open Restaurants outdoor dining program had surpassed 10,000 — saving an estimated 90,000 jobs. The return of indoor dining remains in limbo, though Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday he would work on the issue with City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, sidestepping de Blasio.
Meanwhile, restaurants like Sichuan Hot Pot Cuisine, situated along narrow stretches and one-way streets in the historic Lower Manhattan neighborhood, are finding it near impossible to follow the requirements of the city’s outdoor dining program.
Zhang and other owners are left to decide whether to eke out a living through takeout and delivery, risk hefty fines by going rogue with unapproved or non-compliant outdoor tables, or close up shop altogether.
Some 46.9% of the 377 inspections that have taken place so far in Chinatown led to a citation of noncompliance or a cease-and-desist order, compared to 43.7% of 11,870 inspections citywide, according to DOT.
Restaurants must remedy the deficiencies within 24 hours or risk a $1,000 fine. DOT asserts that the primary aim of its citations is to give establishments the opportunity to correct the situation where possible.
On the Move on Mott
One restaurant, Cha Chan Tang, received three separate cease-and-desist orders between July 28 to Aug. 19 from the city Department of Transportation after inspectors marked its outdoor set-up as noncompliant.
Straddling Bayard and Pell Street, Cha Chan Tang sits in the center of Mott Street, nestled between a shuttered restaurant and an empty gift shop. The Hong-Kong style cafe has been serving up congee and pineapple buns to its loyal Cantonese clientele for over a decade and throughout the pandemic.
Like most Chinatown thoroughfares, Mott is a one-way street. A fire lane on the west side of the street prohibits half of the restaurants from mounting outdoor seating.
Cha Chan Tang put outdoor seating across the street after being told to move from in front of its storefront during its last inspection. According to Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, the restaurant “has had to move back and forth over five times” due to DOT rules.
Cha Chan Tang received citations after initially setting up in a no-standing zone and again — after moving across the street to a location that was deemed by DOT to be “unsafe” since servers had to cross back and forth in traffic.
“Not every city block is like Park Avenue or the boulevard blocks that are wide enough to accommodate open restaurants on both sides,” said Karlin Chan, a Chinatown community activist, as he smoked a cigarette outside of Cha Chan Tang. “By not allowing this, you’re telling half the restaurants in your city to go to hell, basically.”
A Web of Requirements
According to DOT’s website, the city’s approach to the Open Restaurant program “prioritizes geographic equity.” But restaurant owners on Bayard, Pell and Mott streets say their businesses aren’t being given an equal opportunity to rebound.
Patrick Mock, general manager of the bakery 46 Mott who made headlines after a run-in with de Blasio, said restaurateurs on his street have “no idea about what is compliant because it changes every week.”
The guidelines have not changed since the first week of the program, according to DOT.
Per city requirements, sidewalk seating areas may not extend past the width of the business, must leave an eight-foot clear path for pedestrians and be at least three feet from the adjacent business.
In roadways, protective barriers must rise at least 18 inches high on three sides. Seating or barriers cannot be located within 15 feet of a fire hydrant, nor within eight feet of a crosswalk.
DOT officials say they have worked closely with the Chinatown Business Improvement District, Councilmember Margaret Chin and the city Department of Small Business Services on webinars for Open Restaurant participants as well as on outreach through targeted door-to-door visits.
“We work with restaurants to improve their setups to help bring more businesses into compliance, though unfortunately, some setups simply cannot be accommodated,” said DOT said in a statement.
‘You Gotta Sacrifice’
Kong Sihk Tong was the first restaurant to open its doors for outdoor seating on Bayard Street. Co-owner Roy Chan said employees followed DOT instructions closely.
After constructing a wood deck with three tables, Chan added a wood roof to provide shade from the sun and shelter from the rain. Inspectors said the topping was non-compliant.
“They came a couple times and told us we’re not supposed to have a roof,” said Roy. “But I said, ‘You didn’t mention it in your paperwork and we already built it already so what are we supposed to do?’”
He said communication with the DOT has been “frustrating” and that many neighboring restaurants have turned to him for guidance on how to participate in Open Restaurants.
While translated instructions are available online, many older restaurant owners don’t know how to find them and are given little to no guidance by DOT inspectors, Chan said.
“Some of the other restaurants aren’t using their outside area, so I’m wondering if they don’t use it, can we borrow it to keep our business running?” Chan asked. “With three tables, we don’t make any profit right now.”
According to Open Restaurant regulations posted on the DOT website, even if another business is willing to share space, only the restaurant’s frontage may be utilized for outdoor seating.
“You gotta sacrifice for the neighborhood,” said Karlin Chan. “What would you rather see? That you have your parking space or that we have empty storefronts up and down the block?”
Further south down Mott Street, between Mosco and Worth Streets, outdoor dining carries on with DOT’s blessings on both sides of the street where “the fire lane miraculously disappears,” according to Chan. At the end of July, politicians touted the new block-long outdoor dining installation designed by architect David Rockwell.
“We are being suffocated by this political rhetoric. That’s very powerful,” said Lee. “You know, if you could bring six politicians down to Chinatown in one day, that is power, and unfortunately, it’s power in the wrong places.”