With an amber chip of roast duck skin on one street and a tangle of lo mein on another, Chinatown took a few steps out of its long hibernation last week.
Before New York City had its first confirmed case of Covid-19 on March 1, the disease had already hurt the neighborhood indirectly, as baseless fears of Chinese-owned businesses kept some visitors away.
Like other Chinese neighborhoods in the city, Manhattan’s Chinatown has been slow to recover. When the city began allowing restaurants to place tables on sidewalks and in parking lanes, and patio umbrellas and potted palms began to sprout north of Canal Street and west of the Tombs, the streets of Chinatown remained largely, eerily, deserted.
Then on Wednesday, on the south end of Mott Street, seating for 120 people opened at a string of communal dining platforms designed to sit on the pavement by the Rockwell Group architecture firm. The installation, done in bright primary colors and then painted by local artists and students from the nearby Transfiguration School, is essentially a socially distanced food court.
The project, a nonprofit effort by Rockwell Group and other donors, had an immediate ripple effect. After seeing the construction earlier last week, the owner of Peking Duck House began to build a dining platform on Mott Street for his restaurant, which is just north of the Rockwell Group cluster. Some businesses on the block had already built dining areas in the street; once the red, yellow and blue pavilions arrived, they no longer needed their ad hoc street furniture, and sold it at a discount to other local restaurants, including Golden Unicorn and Hwa Yuan Szechuan.
On Tuesday night, Hwa Yuan served its first meals since March that were not packed in takeout containers. True, customers sat at three tables next to the curb on East Broadway rather than in one of the newly decorated dining rooms on the restaurant’s three floors. (Indoor dining is still prohibited in the city.)
But Hwa Yuan had set the tables as grandly as the circumstances would permit, nesting delicate white porcelain appetizer plates into porcelain chargers, and supplying each place setting with two pairs of lacquered chopsticks propped against a ceramic chopstick rest.
The city had shaken off most of the day’s heat by the time I arrived for dinner. Still, the first thing I ordered was a bowl of chilled sesame noodles.
These are, of course, the noodles that Hwa Yuan began serving when it was founded by the Sichuan-born chef Shorty Tang in 1967. They are the noodles that restaurants across the city have tried to copy, often without the run of dark vinegar or orange splash of chile oil that made Mr. Tang’s recipe so thrilling. One day these noodles will be commemorated by a bronze plaque on the building. For now, the best way to honor them is to eat them.
For the sake of comparison, you might also get the shredded bean-curd salad, for which cold, pressed tofu is sliced into square strands, like spaghetti alla chitarra. Outfitted with Chinese celery and dressed with sesame oil, it is at least as refreshing on a hot day as the sesame noodles.
Some people always look as if they should be in a suit, even at the beach. Hwa Yuan is like that. In its attempt to transfer its elegant style to the new asphalt-and-concrete ambience, it may have pioneered the concept of curbside Peking duck carving. A waiter set up a small table on the sidewalk and, holding a cleaver in one hand and a roast duck in the other, proceeded to whittle off tiles of skin and flesh under the LED beam of the streetlights.
Chien Lieh Tang, Shorty Tang’s son and the current chef, said in a phone interview that he had resisted outdoor dining. Instead, he had lobbied the city to allow indoor service.
“A Chinese restaurant is different because we have a lot of plate service,” he said. “You have appetizer, soup, rice, a lot of things, a lot of sauce, so it’s not easy for Chinese restaurants to put it outside.”
There are other challenges in Chinatown. The tourists are gone, and while jury duty has resumed at some downtown courts, many office buildings are empty. A handful of sidewalk tables would make little difference to banquet and dim sum restaurants with space for hundreds of people at a time, including Jing Fong and 88 Palace, which have not embraced outdoor dining.
Mr. Tang held out for a month before giving in. “We don’t have a choice,” he said. “We have to survive.”
Dinner on Mott Street the next night was a less formal affair. A waiter handed me a paper menu pulled off a ring hanging by the front door. Then he gestured toward an empty patio table and chairs — donated by the companies that made them — inside a three-sided plywood pen painted daisy yellow and separated by plexiglass partitions from the two nearest tables.
The steamed dumplings, scallops in black-bean sauce and pork chow fun showed up in plastic takeout containers. The lids were snapped on tight. Knives, forks and napkins were sealed in plastic. Disposable chopsticks were handed out if you asked.
It wasn’t until after I’d sat down that I realized my menu wasn’t from Wo Hop, where I’d meant to eat, but Wo Hop Next Door, the younger spinoff run by another branch of the family. Walking down the red-tiled passageway to Wo Hop has always felt like entering a noir film. Part of it is the period décor and the rest is the period cuisine — midcentury chow mein. There’s nothing cinematic about Wo Hop Next Door.
But I’ve never been one of those people who think the cooking at the two Wo Hops is different enough to be worth arguing about. And the cooking registered differently outside, under the forest of fire escapes and bilingual signage. It is less a step back in time and more a stop along a guided tour of local history.
At your outdoor table, you could start with lobster enrobed in a glossy, harmless sauce at Wo Hop, founded in 1938; move on to crab fried rice and an entire steamed fish under scallion threads from Ping’s Seafood, open since 1998; then take on a bowl of the trusty soup dumplings from Shanghai 21, also known as 21 Shanghai House, which has been there less than a decade.
You could bring your tour up to this year with dessert from Pinklady Cheese Tart. Jean Lim, a young entrepreneur who moved to New York from Malaysia, signed the lease on her narrow bakery in February.
She moved ahead with her plan, even when there was almost nobody on Mott Street to buy her crisp, twice-baked pastry shells filled with whipped, sweetened fresh cheese. She makes some plain and flavors others with, for instance, matcha or chocolate. A single palm-size tart is $2.75, and will disappear in a minute or less.
Chinatown’s geologic layering of successive generations of immigrants, cuisines and sensibilities is one source of its enduring allure to hungry, curious visitors. Tradition anchors the neighborhood, but also makes it vulnerable. Although restaurants there have long offered takeout, online ordering is unheard of at many of them, or was until the pandemic forced some owners to adapt.
Narrow sidewalks and streets that seem to have more than their share of restricted parking spaces made it hard for some Chinatown restaurants to take advantage of the new outdoor dining rules. And the frugality that helps businesses there come through lean times also made them reluctant to spend money on outdoor seating that may end up in the trash in a few months, according to Wellington Chen, the executive director of the Chinatown Business Improvement District.
His group has lent restaurants its canopies, outdoor lights, tables, chairs and umbrellas, along with sandbags to weigh them down. It trucked in 6,400 pounds of rich soil to fill the planter boxes that restaurants use as a buffer between traffic lanes and in-street seating, and moved the boxes from restaurants that no longer need them to ones that did, like Golden Unicorn. (That restaurant and Peking Duck House did not return calls about their reopenings, but Mr. Chen believes that both will begin serving outdoors within the next week.)
The new seating on Mott Street is Rockwell Group’s sixth outdoor-dining installation, and the first one shared by several restaurants.
Another communal dining cluster is scheduled for later this month. It will radiate from the intersection of 37th Road and 74th Street in Jackson Heights, in the part of Queens that had the highest concentration of illness from Covid-19. Like the businesses of Chinatown, the Nepalese, Bangladeshi and Indian restaurants on those blocks have been slow to exploit the new outdoor dining rules.
Working with the city Department of Transportation, the firm looked in the five boroughs to identify “locations where the operators weren’t capable of rallying resources to help themselves,” in the words of David Rockwell, the firm’s founder.
“It’s been so terrifying to look at the empty city and see it just as hardware,” Mr. Rockwell said. “In theater, when there’s not a performance, the art form doesn’t exist. In some ways, cities are like that. Walking around the city you see these big gaping wounds. And you see these pockets where people have started to dine out.”