The other night a watermelon was brought to my table in the backyard of Olmsted, in Brooklyn. The first thing I noticed was its unusually compact size, slightly smaller than my teenage son’s head. The more unusual thing, though, was the copper spigot sticking out of its midsection. When I turned the spigot, out trickled a stream of cold, pink watermelon punch.
Even before the alcohol — both aquavit and clairin, the clear, small-batch rum from Haiti, swam around in watermelon juice seasoned by lemongrass and a subliminal amount of fish sauce — had a chance to work its way to my chafed nerves, I was already glad I’d left the house.
Yes, it’s impossible to eat outdoors at a restaurant — and outdoors is the only way we can eat at New York City restaurants at the moment — without some degree of worry. Many people won’t do it, whether or not the governor and mayor say it’s safe. But for those who risk it, there’s a decent chance you’ll encounter a watermelon samovar, or something like it.
Since getting clearance to begin serving at outdoor tables in late June, the city’s restaurants have been in a manic phase. They are almost as desperate to prove that life is one big alfresco party as New Yorkers are to believe it.
Summer is typically a slow season in the city. With a return to indoor dining nowhere in sight, though, owners have concluded that the summer may well be the only season they’re going to get. So they’ve tried to make eating out seem like a combination of a tropical vacation and a family picnic at which a few members of the family have been drinking steadily since breakfast.
Olmsted, in the Prospect Heights neighborhood, has gone so far as to name its backyard incarnation Olmsted Summer Camp. A few picnic tables have joined the regular outdoor furniture, which is widely spaced around a container garden where tomatoes and peppers are starting to ripen. (Raised planter beds turn out to be ideal for social distancing.)
To keep the campers entertained, the restaurant has been programming music nights, movie nights, trivia nights, magic nights and comedy nights. There was nothing going on when I was there, which is a good thing, because nothing would send me back to self-quarantine faster than having to eat during a stand-up comic’s routine.
The host had seated me near several shelves of games. She must have guessed, correctly, that I was one of those campers who stayed in the tent when everybody else was out running the obstacle course. According to an email Olmsted sent July 1, the night before Summer Camp began, all the checkers, Jenga pieces, playing cards and Connect 4 sets are “sanitized after use!”
This is reassuring, but only up to a point. From what we know about the coronavirus, it is more likely to float through the air than cling to surfaces when it jumps from person to person. And the longer you stay in one place, the higher your risk of infection. While scientists believe that mingling with other people is safer outdoors than inside, the prevailing wisdom is that you should still try to keep your mingling brief. If you choose to go out for a meal, it’s probably wise not to settle in for a match of canasta after dessert.
Not that anyone was playing games when I was there. They did all the things people used to do at restaurants, taking selfies and arguing about subjects you can’t believe people really argue about. I was unhappy to see that almost nobody except the staff wore masks. My own protocol was to tie mine on any time I didn’t have food in front of me.
That was the plan, at least. I got a bit absent-minded about it once the watermelon punch had me in its clutches. This is not very surprising, but it does make me skeptical about restaurants’ finding a safe way to serve indoors before Covid-19 is brought to heel.
Greg Baxtrom, the chef and one of Olmsted’s owners, stopped by the table to talk for a few minutes. His mouth was hidden behind a stretchy Spiderman fabric.
“I’m a huge Marvel Comics guy,” he said. He had wanted to get Marvel versions of all the games, he said, but balked when he saw how much more they cost.
Mr. Baxtrom had ditched his regular menu except for the frozen yogurt with lavender honey, a dessert that dares to ask the question: What if the Dairy Queen made a state visit to Greece?
Before the pandemic, a typical Olmsted plate had at least half a dozen different but complementary things going on. The summer camp dishes are vastly simpler. Each is similar enough to the American summer-foods canon to make you glad you’re eating it, but dissimilar enough to keep you from asking why you are eating it at a restaurant.
My meal started with a salad, sort of: sliced watermelon, on the rind, under ribbons of kombu and purple shiso. I could eat it every night until the end of September without complaining. There was fried chicken, which the skeleton crew in the kitchen endows with a resounding crunch, and a kebab of pineapple, spring onions and New York strip that had a neo-tiki swivel in its hips.
I liked both, but they were kicked to the back seat when the smoked spareribs arrived, gorgeous bands of meat under a barbecue sauce inspired by the fruity, salty, savory paste that comes with tonkatsu in Japanese restaurants.
Like many restaurateurs, Mr. Baxtrom has kept afloat since March by trying a little of this and a little of that. With a grant from the Lee Initiative, he and a small crew cooked and gave away meals and groceries to out-of-work restaurant employees and others. They also sell groceries at Olmsted Trading Post, which used to be Olmsted’s private dining room. There are fresh pretzel rolls, vegetables from Mr. Baxtrom’s preferred farms and condiments made on site, including a ranch so good it made me understand why the first bottled salad dressings had been such a big deal.
Across Vanderbilt Avenue, Mr. Baxtrom has a second restaurant, Maison Yaki, that is too small to operate safely now. He has turned it into a showcase where Black food entrepreneurs will set up shop for two weeks at a time until the end of the year or longer. This is how I joined the very large fan base for the salt-flecked vegan miso-chocolate chip cookies baked by Lani Halliday, whose business is called Brutus Bakeshop.
I enjoyed my night among the tomato plants and watermelon samovars. It may be an accident of timing, but there’s something joyful about returning to restaurants while summer is beating down around us — it demands a relaxed style of cooking and eating that happens to be the only style that seems to make any sense right now. Will it make sense for the restaurant business in the long run?
In a phone conversation the next day, Mr. Baxtrom said reservation and walk-in traffic for summer camp had been strong. Olmsted now has more seats outside than it did inside.
But tables go empty each time a thunderstorm rolls in. Because the food is more casual and apt to be shared, the average check is lower than it was last year. Still, Mr. Baxtrom plans to keep feeding backyard campers until the fall.
“We’re just trying to make it through this year,” he said.
The chefs he knows talk to each other about a coronavirus vaccine, and about how that would allow them to run their businesses the way they used to. They are fixated on surviving until April, when they seem to believe a vaccine will become available.
“Spring 2021,” Mr. Baxtrom said. “Just get there without losing everything. That’s the mind-set that I and a lot of others have now. Just get to the vaccine.”
Olmsted Summer Camp, Wednesdays through Sundays at 659 Vanderbilt Avenue (Park Place), Prospect Heights, Brooklyn; 718-552-2610; olmstednyc.com.