For Peter González, the return this week of regulars to the bar at Johnny’s, the Greenwich Village watering hole he owns, was a hopeful milestone for a neighbourhood joint that has clung on for the past 30 years — through gentrification, September 11, the financial crisis, the fitness boom and much else. Yet it was also disorienting.
“It’s really awkward having people sit at the bar right in front of you because we’ve gotten so used to distance,” González said.
The easing this week of restrictions on bars is another sign that New York City’s once fitful reopening from the Covid shutdown has broken into a headlong gallop.
As infections continue to fall, Mayor Bill de Blasio recently declared July 1 as a target date for the city to be fully reopened. Not to be outdone by his bitter political rival, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced this week that he wanted most stores, restaurants, museums and the like to be running near full capacity by May 19, calling it “a milestone for New York State and a significant moment of transition”.
Even though Broadway is still closed, tickets have gone on sale this week for shows that are expected to resume in September.
In the meantime, there are other signs of life resuming, even if it is not necessarily returning to a pre-Covid normal. One executive noted, for example, that her spin cycle class had become crowded again. Like herself, she surmised, people may not be in Manhattan five days a week, but they are increasingly there sometimes. The Lincoln tunnel — as clear as a nun’s arteries just a few months ago — is again clogged.
On Wednesday afternoon Le Bilboquet, the Upper East Side bistro, was also packed inside — as was its new row of outdoor seating. The throng of glamorous patrons waiting at the door, and in the rain, seemed to rebut the claim that everyone with the means had abandoned New York City for Palm Beach in Florida or the Hamptons on Long Island.
“It’s quiet,” the maître d quipped with Gallic understatement as the crowd buzzed all around him.
Yet such scenes are still patchy. Just a few blocks away, in Midtown, where many office buildings are still largely empty, the bars were, too. A doorman at the Park Hyatt hotel, for example, on the so-called Billionaires’ Row, said it would not reopen its lounge until July. The Italian restaurant Marea was turning people away from its amber-hued bar that looks on to Central Park and asked them to return on Friday.
On Monday, the night that bar restrictions were lifted, the scene was muted at the Corner Bistro, a cozy fixture in the West Village. There were just three customers sitting at a corner of the bar, beside a not-so-inviting sheet of Plexiglas.
“Until you get business travellers and tourists back, everything’s a neighbourhood joint,” said the bartender, who is now adept not only at mixing drinks but also at checking patrons’ vaccination cards. He looks forward to the day when the nearby High Line elevated park is again crowded with foreign tourists — some of whom might drop in for a burger and a beer.
Johnny’s, by contrast, has always catered to the locals. It is a highly-efficient drinking establishment — a slender cubbyhole that features little more than a bar so narrow that patrons can practically reach across to the bottles, a chalkboard to record drinks left for friends, a pay phone, a sketchy toilet, a few strands of Christmas lights and, of course, a jukebox.
On a recent evening, tunes ran the gamut from Wu-Tang Clan, The Police and Jamiroquai to Weezer’s rendition of a Muppets’ ballad and then Billy Joel’s ultra-New York “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”. A few men seated at one end of the bar were debating who was the greatest-ever song writer. Two women were snuggling and sipping whisky. Another complained about her hypertension. A Puerto Rican gentleman was dressed as a cowboy and looked as though he had wandered in from the dusty plains.
“Bars in New York are family,” said González, who came to the Village years ago from Corpus Christi, Texas, and fell in with a group of ballerinas. He stuck around. “A lot of people in New York don’t have family.” It was either Johnny’s — “or go see a shrink”.
Like other bars and restaurants, Johnny’s has adapted to an ever-changing set of circumstances since the city went into lockdown in March last year. After it started serving take-out drinks passers-by were so grateful for its survival they would slip money through the front window, said one of the bartenders. “People feel safe here,” she added.
It put up a sidewalk tent, and was also forced to serve hot dogs — “de Blasio dogs”, as many now call them — to satisfy a Covid-era requirement that any establishment serving alcohol must serve food with it. In a hopeful sign, González on Sunday removed the hot dog machine from its place atop the empty bar and brought it home. It was no longer needed now that the food rule has been scrapped.
Still, things are not normal. Those who now sit at the bar must sign a logbook and the whole show ends at 11pm — not the usual 3am or 4am.
“Some people say it will take another year to really get things popping again,” said Oscar, 29, a drummer, who was keeping his martini company with a beer on a recent evening. He yearned for the nearby jazz clubs to reopen. In the meantime, he had spent much of the last year alone, he said, and — like other New Yorkers — “self medicating”.
Now he has Johnny’s.