From sea to other shining sea, a tragic impatience in the face of real casualties saw restaurants and bars rush to re-open, only to have coronavirus cases escalate—forcing a defeated retreat.
But, after being the original American epicenter of the pandemic, New York City rose up to be a paragon of responsibility, and the resulting significant slow down of new cases was its reward. Gotham, of course, is one of the most social places in the universe, where small apartments drive people steadily into bars and restaurants—and so no one needed a return to that “normal” more than did it.
The west side of SoHo had in the last several years had become more of an epicurean destination than it had ever been, really. And its more notable dining spots have been valiantly springing back to life. Houseman Chef/Owner Ned Baldwin—formerly of Prune—had taken to (legally) setting up tables between parking spaces, creating a whole new sort of…installation art. And trendy Westville had come alive on the sidewalk, where we downed a Sunday afternoon bottle of prosecco just before a spectacular thundershower. It did indeed, feel a bit normal.
But Harold’s restaurant at the Arlo SoHo hotel, which had become as popular as the hotel’s very, very popular rooftop bar A.R.T. SoHo, was blessed with a “hidden” garden area, complete with two fully functional rustic cabins, where one can feel shut away from all the towering edifices just beyond. So we booked a table on its first night back in biz (it had been doing takeout for guests and locals since the lockdown), and the sheer exhilaration of having a waiter ask “Can I take your order?” could not be over-exaggerated. But it took some real work to get there.
“Forecasting of all our costs, redesigns of our floor plan, and a very different approach to our product,” Arlo Director of Food & Beverage Gary Wallach explained. “We have only been able to bring back a minimal number of staff members. With that comes restrictions on what we can accomplish, especially when our main goal is the safety of guests.”
Still, we had strolled confidently into the aforementioned garden to a well-chosen funk / R&B soundtrack, including Tinashe’s groovalicious cover of “Genius of Love.” A good start indeed.
The menu was limited, a reasonable decision; but food choices at Harold’s were never too difficult. They make one of the city’s best cheeseburgers (with an “impossible” option as well), and their prosciutto & fig pizza, as well as their healthy cobb, with crispy farro and pumpkin seeds, were both always flawless. But we inquired about the hot chicken sandwich, and unhesitatingly received a knowing nod from our server.
Tables were thoughtfully spaced more than six feet apart, and a good-looking crowd began to filter in, giving it the energy we so exigently needed to be around again. The first notes of Sade’s “Never as Good as the First Time” came through the soundsystem, and we were utterly contented.
Back to that hot chicken sandwich…confession: we ate it with a fork and knife, just to more fully replicate a typical restaurant experience. But it was also a sublime mix of textures and flavors, just hot/spicy enough to jolt us into a higher consciousness…though not too hot for anyone with a sensitive constitution. And we decided that the fries, skinny, soft and crunchy, with three heavenly tasting dipping sauces, might be the best we’ve ever, ever had. Even the cole slaw was chopped and tanged to perfection. And—this is a really big thing for us—they mixed an exemplary dirty martini, with high quality olives.
“It’s been nice to see guests within our space,” Wallach enthused. “A full restaurant equates to a feeling of fulfillment. We do this to bring people together. It’s nice to do that again.”
Yes…it definitely is.