Restaurant dining outdoors is one of the greatest pleasures a New York summer has to offer. In fact, the city has long since surpassed Paris in the breadth and excellence of its alfresco dining opportunities. But alas, too many of the outside tables are located on sidewalks, seeming more land grabs by space-strapped restaurateurs than serious seating: Tiny, graceless two-tops stand jammed together, mere feet from fume-spewing traffic, groaning garbage trucks, and pedestrians weaving so close to your table that they might reach over and grab one of your French fries.
What you really want is a secluded dining space behind the restaurant or in a courtyard, far from the madding crowd. Ideally, it might even be a garden perfumed with flowers. One such space is found at Anella (222 Franklin Street, Brooklyn, 718-389-8100), an obscurely located Greenpoint bistro. In summer, dine under a vine-draped pergola in a garden bedded with Shasta daisies and other colorful annuals, while scarfing homemade burrata with olive oil and sea salt, flawless fried calamari with an anchovy dip, or a thick steak sided Tuscan-style with rosemary potatoes. You’ll feel like you’re on vacation in Italy.
Another favorite backyard lurks behind Saraghina (435 Halsey Street, Brooklyn, 718-574-0010), a Bed-Stuy boîte with salvaged furniture and a pleasantly raffish feel, named for the fat, frowsy prostitute in Fellini’s 8 1/2. The place is driven by a wood-burning oven that turns out great pizzas, of which the best is “Capocollo,” draped with the spicy neck-meat ham beloved of Calabrians. The proprietors are from the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, so the rest of the charcuterie and cheeses is also spot-on, and there are salads galore offered as daily specials. Last summer, these included one made with glove-soft octopus tentacles and another with shaved fennel—simple but delightful food, especially welcome in warmer months.
Although you might associate Teutonic outdoor suds-love with October, a German beer garden is an extremely pleasant place to sit at the height of the summer, too. The city’s best is also the hardest to get to: Killmeyer’s Old Bavaria Inn (4254 Arthur Kill Road, Staten Island, 718-984-1202), a living museum of 19th-century German immigration to New York, with an ornate carved oak bar and a fenced backyard that seems light-years from Manhattan’s towers. Enjoy lighter German brews such as Köstritzer Black Lager while forking back an assortment of schnitzels and sausages. You can find similar fare and fermented hop products right in Manhattan at Loreley (7 Rivington Street, 212-253-7077), where rows of stein-littered trencher tables are shielded from rain and sun by umbrellas; you’d never imagine such a small spot has such a large backyard-seating area.
Perhaps the city’s most famous beer garden is the Czech Bohemian Hall (29-19 24th Avenue, Queens, 718-274-4925), an Astoria institution for more than a century that has become wildly repopularized during the past decade. There you can dine and drink under a canopy of trees inside a rustic stone enclosure. Although the beer flows freely, the food agenda is inconsistent, with Eastern European comfort food available from the indoor kitchen and various outdoor grilled-meat concessions and food-providing events popping up from time to time. Call ahead.
Brooklyn’s most tumultuous outdoor spot, also reflecting the ancient ethnic population of its neighborhood, is the hilariously named L&B Spumoni Gardens (2725 86th Street, Brooklyn, 718-449-6921), where a typical summer evening seems like a scene from Grease. Girls strut their stuff in ponytails and poodle skirts as convertibles cruise by on 86th Street, and the fare runs to Sicilian “sheet” pizzas, red-sauced pastas, and the eponymous ice cream product, consumed in a giant fenced front yard. You won’t want to leave. Also in an Italian vein, find a secluded dining space behind Leo’s Latticini (4602 104th Street, Queens, 718-898-6069), where they make their own mozzarella and ricotta, deployed in wonderful hero sandwiches like the iconic eggplant parm, one of Corona’s greatest vegetarian delights.
If you want water views, city eateries can provide those, too. Located right on the Hudson River at the south end of Riverside Park, the city-franchised Boat Basin Café (West 79th Street, 212-496-5542) has surprisingly decent food, mainly burgers and sandwiches, several in a vegetarian vein. The space overlooks the boat basin, where pleasure craft and houseboats are docked. Afterward, a stroll along the mighty river is in order. Occupying the south side of the South Street Seaport complex, Beekman Beer Garden (89 South Street, 212-896-4600) is more beach club than beer garden, though the place does grill a nice bratwurst. Rather, it’s a casual outdoor bar with various game opportunities (including outdoor Ping-Pong) and stunning views of the Brooklyn Bridge. The beer list is locavoric, and predictable fare runs to burgers, nachos, and fish tacos.
If it’s fish tacos and other Mexican food you crave in a sky-view setting, check out Café de la Esquina (225 Wythe Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-393-5500), ensconced in a streamlined diner in Williamsburg. Right next door is a graveled dining area, where even on busy evenings, you can usually find a spot. The menu offers a greatest hits of south-of-the-border cuisine, including taquitos, chile relleno, guac, grilled fish, and even hamburguesas, washed down not only with beer and wine, but also with powerful mixed drinks.
Another form of outdoor dining remote from the sidewalk involves sitting on a rooftop and enjoying views of the city from a unique perspective. The French bistro Juliette (135 North 5th Street, Brooklyn, 718-388-9222) rises in the midst of Williamsburg’s tenderloin district, which seems less cacophonous as you peer down at it while munching on duck confit, escargots, artichoke salad, and Moroccan vegetable tagine. Yotel, the city’s first robotic hotel, boasts a delightful open-air seating area on its fourth floor adjacent to the restaurant Dohyo (a/k/a FOUR, 570 Tenth Avenue, 646-449-7700), where the Asian-fusion fare is much better than it needs to be. Small plates include foie gras gyoza, Wagyu beef tiradito, and the supremely snacky wok-fried okra.
Another spectacular rooftop space is found atop Eataly, the Italian supermarket catty-corner from the Flatiron Building. Birreria (200 Fifth Avenue, 212-229-2560) offers fare that mixes the Italian and the Germanic, with well-hung sausages and a peculiar emphasis on mushroom salads—though not psychedelic ones, damn! Beer is brewed right on the premises, but stick with the more standard Dogfish Head selections or try one of the recently invented Italian beers in bottles if you’re in an adventuresome mood. But you must be already if you’ve braved the strange combination of elevators and stairways that ascend to Birreria.