Rockwell Group Is Rethinking the New York City Dining Experience

After creating a modular dining system for restaurants impacted by Covid-19, the design firm is spearheading community-wide seating areas across entire city blocks. They may very well become the new normal.

DineOut NYC on Mott Street in Chinatown. Photography by Emily Andrews for Rockwell Group

For the past few months, New York’s nearly 300,000 service workers have fallen on hard times. Government-mandated closures forced almost every restaurant and bar across the five boroughs to shut down in mid-March, leaving thousands of employees jobless while calling the future of the city’s food and beverage industry into question. As New York forges ahead with Stage IV of its reopening strategy, restaurateurs have been forced to rethink their operations to accommodate the new normal of reduced capacity and social distancing. Fortunately, the city government has granted restaurants and bars permission to set up curbside alfresco dining areas to help jumpstart business. 

Right when the lockdown started, the local design firm Rockwell Group predicted seismic shifts in dining dynamics. After consulting with restaurant owners about their current business needs under new safety guidelines, the firm teamed up with the New York City Hospitality Alliance to create DineOut NYC, an adaptable and modular dining system inspired by open-air cafes. “Our hope is that we can create a template that is adaptable for different locations and street environments,” the Rockwell Group team said in a statement, “and that it will be cost-effective for the city and restaurant owners and also provide potential revenue to offset costs.” The program launched at six eateries across the five boroughs, beginning with the celebrated Harlem comfort food mainstay Melba’s, which deployed the prototypes on otherwise empty parking spaces and sidewalks. 

Rockwell Group’s original proposal for DineOut NYC

DineOutNYC’s modular kit of parts comprises a dining booth, sanitation station, wooden decking panels, and plant-covered street fencing, along with accessory details such as lighting, umbrellas, fans, and planter benching. Each location shares a similar design concept, with differences depending on the restaurant’s location and access to sidewalks and open streets. Though the dining areas are makeshift and feel DIY, the firm didn’t shy away from sourcing the high-end materials and furnishings that normally appear in its award-winning hospitality projects (including The Diner, a pop-up experience created in collaboration with Surface during Milan Design Week in 2018). Ultra-compact Dekton by Cosentino clads tabletops at Negril BK in Park Slope, Brooklyn, for example, while Room & Board, West Elm, Aceray, and Emuamericas all offered up furnishings. Overall, the vibe is laid-back, elevated, and suited to withstand everyday use and unpredictable weather.

So far, DineOut NYC has helped bring crucial foot traffic back to restaurants. With a new outdoor setup, Melba’s reopened with 47 fewer seats than its pre-pandemic indoor operation, bringing in 72 percent of its regular business in the first week. Those numbers may not seem immediately promising, but Melba Wilson, who opened her namesake restaurant in 2005, observed that customers have been lingering for much longer, prompting her to stop taking reservations entirely. “We found that people want to sit in fellowship over a meal with friends and family, which they haven’t been able to do,” she told the New York Post. “We have to find a way to navigate that while making our guests feel comfortable and welcome. This helps rebuild communities and creates jobs, and that is invaluable.”

Photography by Emily Andrews for Rockwell Group
Photography by Emily Andrews for Rockwell Group

This positive response motivated both Rockwell Group and the Alliance to take the program one step further. The duo has expanded DineOut NYC into safely distanced communal dining areas, where multiple restaurants will utilize large outdoor facilities that line an entire city block closed to vehicle traffic. The first such setup brings 120 seats to Mott Street between Mosco and Worth—a picturesque Chinatown block noted for its high concentration of independent restaurants. Open until October 31, the facility comprises 12 covered dining pavilions with banquettes that accommodate groups of up to five. Tall planters filled with lush greenery separate guests from passersby, and custom curved plexiglass partitions help further divide freestanding tables and chairs between the pavilions. 

Wellington Chen, the executive director of the Chinatown Partnership, which worked with Rockwell Group to identify the segment of Mott Street where DineOut NYC would live, describes the pop-up as a much-needed morale booster for a neighborhood severely impacted by the shutdown. “The Chinese dining experience has always been about the community, a communal gathering,” he tells Resy. “And there’s no better place than this.”

Photography by Emily Andrews for Rockwell Group
Photography by Emily Andrews for Rockwell Group

That spirit of connection can be seen in cheerful details such as murals created by students from the nearby Transfiguration School in collaboration with the local illustrator Sammi Qu-Kwok. Nodding to Chinatown’s deeply ingrained culinary heritage, the murals depict staples of dim sum cuisine that students hand-painted onto each street-facing planter. Tabletops will also showcase Qu-Kwok’s custom illustrations of Chinese zodiac signs, which are paired with vignettes of Chinatown scenes by the artist James Chan. 

Rockwell Group and the Alliance aim to expand DineOut NYC to more neighborhoods impacted by the coronavirus. The duo launched a nonprofit, a partner project of the Fund for the City of New York, to facilitate donations that will help support the construction of more outdoor eating spaces. So far, Moët Hennessy, Resy, and American Express have signed on as founding partners. “Restaurants have never been more important to the vitality of our city,” says David Rockwell, the founder and president of Rockwell Group, which is preparing to open a second DineOut NYC location in Queens. “What happens on our sidewalks and streets, we are learning, is critical to how we pull through this. It’s a moment for us to rethink the value of urban space.” 

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