NYC restaurateurs are pressing on with openings amid COVID-19 restrictions

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Welcome to our grand opening — and yes, we will probably be shutting down soon.

A handful of New York City restaurateurs recently have been opening new eateries, even as some admit they will likely close within days or weeks as state officials impose fresh pandemic restrictions.

A few, meanwhile, claim they’ve found the secret sauce — negotiating favorable rents that they say will keep them alive during the pandemic and beyond.

Last Wednesday, Gray Hawk Grill, whose executive chef, Anthony DiCocco , has cooked for celebs including Jennifer Lopez, Sir Elton John and Mary J. Blige, opened its doors at 1556 Second Ave. on the Upper East Side.

The American-style venue, whose go-to items will include baked clams, butternut squash soup and filet mignon, is the culmination of a 25-year dream for veteran restaurant manager Steve Millan.

“I wasn’t going to walk away from something that I’ve dreamt of doing for so many years,” Millan told Side Dish.

The pandemic caught Gray Hawk Grill by surprise. Millan signed the lease a week before the March lockdown.

Then came the construction build, which took longer than planned because of the outbreak.

“We thought 25 percent indoor-seating capacity would lead to 50, then 75 and 100, and now it looks like it will go back to zero,” Millan said, referring to recent warnings from Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio that restaurant closures are likely coming.

Nevertheless, Millan says that opening now, even with limited indoor hours and capacity, is “better than not opening” at all. When the clampdown on indoor dining comes, he plans to pivot to heated outdoor dining and delivery.

He says he hopes the landlord — who has been understanding so far — will work with him.

“I’m in it for the long haul,” he said, adding that he signed a 15-year lease with a five-year extension option.

Other restaurateurs are taking an even bolder approach, signing leases even after the pandemic hit.

November 28, 2020: Gray Hawk Grill at 1556 2nd Ave: Owner Steve Millan

November 28, 2020: Gray Hawk Grill at 1556 2nd Ave: Owner Steve Millan

Steve Millan

Dan Herrick

November 28, 2020: Gray Hawk Grill at 1556 2nd Ave: Exterior

November 28, 2020: Gray Hawk Grill at 1556 2nd Ave: Exterior

The exterior of Gray Hawk Grill.

Dan Herrick

November 28, 2020: Gray Hawk Grill at 1556 2nd Ave: Diners Outside

November 28, 2020: Gray Hawk Grill at 1556 2nd Ave: Diners Outside

Diners eating outside at Gray Hawk Grill.

Dan Herrick

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Garry Kanfer, owner of Japanese restaurant chain Kissaki, says he sees COVID-19 as a short-term problem with long-term upside.

Kissaki opened its first location on the Bowery before the pandemic hit. After the first lockdowns began in March, it opened an outpost in the Hamptons. Now, it also has locations on the Upper West Side and in Long Island City. In January, a Kissaki will open in Greenwich, Connecticut. And by April or May, Kanfer plans to add a location in the Financial District and more Long Island outposts, in Manhasset and East Hampton.

“The idea is to have low fixed costs, like rent,” Kanfer said. “I was able to negotiate great rents that would probably have been 200-percent higher before COVID.”

Kanfer claims his business is “COVID-proof,” from the way he designed the packaging to the logistics and “how well sushi holds and travels.” His focus on the Hamptons is paying off, he says, because when his customers leave the city, that’s where they tend to go.

“We were so busy the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in the Hamptons — and all through Thanksgiving week,” he said.

On the Upper West Side, SA Hospitality Group, which operates the popular Sant Ambroeus chain, as well as Casa Lever, is in talks to open a new restaurant called Felice on the Upper West Side at 240 Columbus Ave.

Le Botaniste, an organic food and wine bar chain founded in Belgium, recently opened at 156 Columbus Ave. And PlantShed, a plant shop at 209 W. 96th St., is adding an Upper West Side PlantShed Cafe — a “floral cafe and retail concept” around the corner at 725 Amsterdam Ave.

In the East Village, Temakase, a Japanese handroll bar at 157 Second Ave., opened in October after signing a lease pre-pandemic. Owner Lirom Michaeli has stuck with plans to open with eight people on staff, although the eatery can seat just five people at a time at 25 percent capacity. A bus stop outside precludes outdoor seating.

Negotiations with the landlord continue.

“We decided to go forward and see how we could do with deliveries,” Michaeli said. “We are taking all the steps necessary, but we probably can’t survive a shutdown.

“Only time will tell. I just have to remain positive.”

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