Classic and Cosmopolitan: N.Y.C. Restaurants Struggle to Stay Open

It’s never just about the food.

From modest ethnic restaurants with dishes redolent of home to classic diners where the sever knows your name and has your order in by the time you’re seated, one of the most appealing item at restaurants around New York isn’t always on the menu: community.

That is just one of the many losses New Yorkers and restaurateurs alike have endured in the months since the pandemic sent the city into a lockdown. Empty dining rooms preceded layoffs, leading restaurants to beef up their takeout and delivery services as they struggled to find ways to coax back nervous diners.

Outdoor dining has helped, but the cooler weather and an increasing infection rate have owners wondering how they’ll manage — let alone survive — the coming months.

The Times visited two restaurants that in their own ways have convened community: Joloff, a Senegalese restaurant in Brooklyn, and the Riverdale Diner, a Bronx institution. Apart from missing busier and better times, their owners are waiting to see what local officials will do next.

ImageThe trimmed-back staff at Riverdale Diner keeps bustling even when the restaurant is less full than in normal times. 

Any diner can offer country-fresh eggs for breakfast. The Riverdale Diner goes one further and lets you choose the country whose style you prefer: from Mexico’s huevos rancheros to Dominican-style eggs with mashed plantains smothered with red onions. And yes, for those who remember the diner’s earliest years in the north Bronx — not far from Gaelic Park — an Irish breakfast is still served.

Having a menu that appeals to everyone was much simpler when the diner opened in 1967, when the neighborhood was heavily Irish and Jewish. But as the city changed, so did the diner’s offerings.

“We always had a menu for everyone,” said Anna Kaperonis, who opened the Riverdale Diner with her husband, George. “We try to do a little for everybody, and as the years went on, we added more items.”

On a recent rainy morning a server with masks and gloves went from table to table taking orders and refilling cups of coffee before vanishing behind the counter and through the swinging kitchen doors. The large main dining room was empty, as was the tented area set up in the parking lot. In the kitchen, workers cooked and prepared food for deliveries.

“When the pandemic came, we got an unexpected vacation,” said Gustavo Barrera, 22, as he swiftly bagged takeout meals. “Now I have to work harder to pay my debts.”

Since reopening, only half of the 40-person staff has been brought back, said Joe Daka, the diner’s manager. They now work three days instead of five, which helps keep more people employed.

“We have some workers who have been here for 35 years,” Mr. Daka said. “Some of them moved. Some of them got stimulus checks. But they have kids, they want to eat. Thank God we’re still open.”

The extensive menu offered by large restaurants like the Riverdale Diner, while a draw for its customers, has its own cost, since such a wide range of ingredients has to be kept on hand.

“People like diners because they can have whatever they want when they want it,” Mrs. Kaperonis said.

While not a problem when the diner was at maximum capacity of 205, the owners are now considering trimming the menu to save money.

And as the weather gets colder, they will take heaters outside to encourage dining there. But that’s a stopgap measure.

“Hopefully, they’ll allow 50 percent capacity,” she said. “Then we hope for the best, hope we find a vaccine, and everybody gets on with their lives once again.”

At Joloff — named for the West African rice dish — staffing is a family affair. Soon after moving to New York from Senegal in 1990, Papa Konare Diagne started selling food he prepared in his apartment to Rastafarian friends.

His success in selling meals from home led him to open a restaurant in Bedford-Stuyvesant with his wife and siblings in 1995.

After 17 years, gentrification and rising rents drove him to his current location, in the same neighborhood, where he has walls covered in art and tables arrayed before a slightly raised stage.

“Since I opened, we did a lot of spoken word, exhibits and drumming,” he said. “This was oriented around culture and community.”

But since the pandemic hit, the stage has fallen silent. Gone, too, are the private parties to celebrate naming ceremonies, weddings and birthdays.

“I just can’t have too many people in here at one time,” Mr. Diagne said. “I’m here with my family, but I care more about their health than money.”

Those community-oriented activities, as much as the food, had helped Joloff attract a diverse clientele.

“We’ve had a younger generation from the Middle East and South Asia, too,” he said. “They’re very curious about the food.”

That curiosity was Mr. Diagne’s entree to offering tours of Senegal and establishing a sister city relationship between Brooklyn and Goree Island, off the Senegalese coast, where enslaved Africans were herded onto ships bound for the Caribbean and the Americas.

“Taking people to visit the motherland was always an extension of the restaurant,” he said. But the tours, along with a festival he organized in Senegal, have been canceled for now.

Mr. Diagne is now trying to find ways to save money, including hiring his own delivery person with scooter rather than relying on app-based services that take a hefty cut.

“I hope to have more deliveries,” he said, “because that’s where the business is going to be.”

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