Indoor Dining in New Jersey Allowed to Resume on July 2

But with restaurants limited to 25 percent seating capacity, chefs' outlooks range from upbeat to "better than nothing."

Monday morning Governor Phil Murphy’s office announced that indoor dining—forbidden in March as part of the pandemic lockdown—can resume statewide on Thursday, July 2, though with seating capacity restricted to 25 percent of normal.

During the months of shutdown, when restaurants were limited to takeout and delivery, and then under the socially-distanced outdoor dining permitted as of June 15, restaurateurs speculated about when indoor dining would get the green light. One heard late July, then maybe mid July. And at what seating capacity? Certainly not 100 percent. Maybe 50 percent? How to make ends meet with half the number of seats, half the revenue? Plus the extra costs of heightened sanitizing, disposable menus, masks and gloves for staff, taking staff temperatures, and so on. The emotions were mixed—anxiety, gloom, hopefulness.

In conversations with eight chefs this week, reactions were again mixed. Here are the highlights:

Dominic Piperno, chef/owner, Hearthside in Collingswood

Hearthside, an NJM Top 30 restaurant whose beating heart is its wood-fired oven and grill, has been closed since March. In previous conversations, Piperno has said that he could not place enough outdoor seats on the sidewalk to make outdoor dining worthwhile, and anyway Hearthside wouldn’t be Hearthside without the experience of dining in the presence of the staff tending the literal hearths.

“I respect Murphy for [resuming indoor dining]. He doesn’t want to open it up too much and risk a spike in infections. It’s a step in the right direction, but unfortunately it doesn’t work for us. That helps a large restaurant, especially one with a liquor license. But 25 percent capacity is just 11 indoor seats in my restaurant [a BYO]. I could do 22 outside, but if it rains, I’m reduced. When we order meats and seafood, we’re spending a couple thousand dollars on perishables. If it storms all weekend, what do I do, throw it out? And it can be 95 degrees in a Jersey summer, and no one wants to eat outside when it’s that hot.

“It’s got to be closer to 75 percent capacity for us to open. And it would depend on the restrictions. Face masks in the kitchen, plastic partitions at the hostess stand. I’m not going to change the ambience of my restaurant. I’d say we’re more likely to reopen in October. Hopefully by then the [infection] spikes will be gone. I don’t know what the endgame is. Will it be wait for a vaccine and then it’s over? Or is it all just in our hands? For now, we’re just minimizing our costs by staying closed.”

Jeanne Cretella, president of Landmark Hospitality

Landmark’s properties include Liberty House on the Jersey City waterfront, Felina in Ridgewood, the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station and Stone House in Warren. Cretella serves on a committee of the governor’s Restart and Recovery Advisory Council, where she represents the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association (NJRHA).

“Yes, it’s impossible to be profitable at 25 percent capacity, but it’s a step in the right direction. If statewide [infection] numbers continue to move in the direction they’ve been, we will very quickly move up to 50, 75 and eventually 100 percent capacity. The indoor ruling will give places that were doing outdoor dining some flexibility when the weather isn’t cooperating.

“July 2 we’ll open [Landmark restaurants] at 25 percent [indoor capacity] and perhaps in 10 days or later be bumped up, I’m hoping to 75 percent. Everyone at the governor’s office realizes the financial impact and that restaurants have systems in place to allow all employees and guests to feel comfortable and safe. That’s the number one priority—guest and employee safety.”

Joseph Voller, executive chef, Il Nido, Marlboro

The modern Italian restaurant received three stars from reviewer Shelby Vittek in September 2019.

“Before the pandemic we had 112 seats inside. Now at 25 percent, we’ll have 28 outside and 28 inside. It’s better than nothing, and it keeps my staff employed. There’s no model or template, so you adapt and keep people safe. We don’t want to flip tables. It’s your table. We want you to feel like you’re in Italy, sit and enjoy.

“My approach used to be expansive. I flew things in from Europe. Now I have to limit some of that. I have to have enough variety to make it worth people coming, but I can’t buy food and throw it in the garbage. I’ll still do five or six pastas—that’s manageable. It’s summer, grilling season, so I’m offering more steaks and aged meats.

“We sold a ton of steaks on Father’s Day. That I got right. Other than that, it’s like a new opening for everyone. You had a model down pat, and now it’s not appropriate anymore. We opened two years ago, then reopened for takeout after the pandemic lockdown. This is like the third time I’ve opened Il Nido in two years.

“On Monday and Tuesday, I go eat at other people’s restaurants, ordering more food than I should, just trying to help people out. The managers find out you’re a chef, they strike up a conversation. You get ideas from different places.

“We used to do 200 covers [people in seats] a night as a BYO. And we had a large staff. Now I’m back on the [cooking] line and have three people. I used to have eight or nine.

“If I’m allowed 28 seats, I’ll have one room of 10, the others 8. I have a 25 foot by 25 foot room and if I put eight or 10 people in it they almost feel lost. When you have tables 15 feet away from each other, it could be a way to feel normal again, but I’m concerned it just reminds people what they’ve been through.”

Sam Freund, chef/owner White Birch

White Birch, a New American BYO, opened in 2018 and made NJM’s Top 30 in 2019.

“My initial reaction was I’ll take 25 percent capacity. We have a big patio with a garden and have done well with it since outdoor dining started, and we’ve been doing a lot of takeout. Indoors, twenty five percent of 70 indoor seats is maybe 20 seats. It’s a start. It could change in a month.

“I’m excited for other restaurants that don’t have the space for outdoor dining. It allows them to maybe save their restaurants. This world needs some kind of positivity right now. And like we say, food brings people together. Even at 25 percent, you have the opportunity to create again, and that is the most beautiful thing.”

Jamie Knott, chef/owner of Saddle River Inn, Saddle River Cafe and, in Jersey City, Cellar 335

Two of Knott’s restaurants, the Inn and Cellar 335, have earned repeat appearances on NJM’s Top 30 list.

“I’m going to stay closed at the Inn [his fine-dining destination] until I can open indoors at 100 percent capacity. At the Cafe, we put up 32 seats outdoors, and we’ll get 14 chairs inside. We’re doing takeout as well. At Cellar 335, starting July 9, we will have 36 seats indoors as well as 36 outdoors. With those things combined, we’re not where we were, but we’re paying the bills.”

Kevin Kohler, chef/owner, Cafe Panache

Cafe Panache, a French-inspired BYO in Ramsey, has made repeat appearances on NJM’s Top 30 Restaurant list.

“At least we can start walking again, thank God. I can’t make sense of outdoor, because our parking lot is in a mall and it’s too busy. I can’t see sitting out there with fast food places all around. I’ll start indoors at 25 percent beginning July 7, with a skeleton crew, and if I can’t make ends meet I might consider putting up a small tent. But it’s not the same, to be baking in the sun when it’s 90 degrees in July, unless you’re on a beach. All the touching and hugging that go with a restaurant, the vibe and the fun, it’s now, like, are we all in a hospital? Are we all sterilized? Everything we got into this business for is getting flushed down the toilet.

At 25 percent capacity, can I pay my bills and insurance, rent, taxes and everything? Absolutely not. But I like the idea of getting things moving. At 50 percent capacity I’m still running a minus. At 80 percent, I’m breaking even. But I don’t want to lose my business after 35 years. If I don’t participate, if I wait for full capacity, I’ll be forgotten. Even if it’s a loser, I have to play the game.”

Robby Younes, COO of Crystal Springs Resort

Restaurant Latour, the resort’s fine-dining destination, has an unbroken streak of appearances on NJM’s Top 25 and Top 30 lists, dating to the list’s creation in 2007. Latour is just one of several indoor and outdoor restaurants at the resort.

“I’d say 25 percent is safe and wise from the governor. Combined with the outdoor dining, it’s a good restart. Latour, which has been closed, will reopen. To accommodate more people, we’ll expand the opening hours, instead of 6pm to 9pm, we’ll do 5:30pm to 9:30pm. We used to have 40 seats there, now will have just 10, but we’ll do a new seating every hour and a half. We’ll probably discontinue the seven-course tasting and go with a three-course or five-course.

“We want to make the quality of food even higher. Everyone’s travel has been limited, so we want to bring the world to Latour. We’ll explore the Mediterranean more, all the best ingredients, combined with our extensive New Jersey foraging. It’s revenge for all the limitations. We all want to come back even stronger.

“The Tavern and the Bistro will do indoor seating at 25 percent as well. We will do dinners in the wine cellar at 25 percent. That means dinner for eight or maybe 10. People have been calling us to ask for that.”

Ryan DePersio, executive chef, Fascino in Montclair, Battello and the Kitchen Step in Jersey City

Fascino has earned a place on NJM’s Top 25 and Top 30 lists every year since the list debuted in 2007.

“Twenty five percent capacity can definitely be a money loser. If you have high rent, it will be very difficult. If you can’t create deals with your landlord and vendors, it will be tough. But if you can do that, you should be able to make a little bit of money. I mean a wildly small profit, but enough to stay afloat until we get more seating allowed. If I thought it was a loser, I’d be closing all three of my restaurants. Between takeout, outdoor dining and indoor dining, I think we can make it work for us.

“We made the menu at Fascino a little more approachable, in keeping with Step and Battello. Like we put the RD burger on the menu at Fascino. We didn’t have a burger there before. Last week at Fascino we did outdoor and takeout and also sold precooked dinners for four that just need heating up.

“It’s difficult for the employees because they’re not working full time—we don’t have enough business to keep them all full-time, but it’s better than no job. And it makes me feel good that I’m doing something for the government by getting a few people off unemployment. I wake up ready to go. I run five miles before people are even out of bed. That’s the way I do it.”

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