Designing Restaurants in the Age of COVID

by | Sep 28, 2020 | News

How Gitano and Zona De Cuba Are Lighting Up NYC Nightlife and Its Signature Skyline

With travel abroad limited and COVID-19 keeping people far from close quarters, it’s nice to know there are still options for nightlife in the Big Apple. Since outdoor dining has started to open up, we’ve been searching for places that really go above and beyond in making an evening out a magical and safe experience. That’s what led us to GITANO Garden of Love (downtown) and Zona De Cuba (uptown) as two examples that are not only surviving, but thriving, during this tumultuous time.

Tulum-based Grupo GITANO recently made their return to NYC with their summer pop-up, Garden of Love. The 24,000-square-foot outdoor restaurant and mezcal bar is the largest alfresco space in downtown Manhattan, with plenty of room to safely social distance. In a time when people are hesitant to travel, Garden of Love transports guests by bringing the Tulum jungle to the concrete jungle. Founder and owner James Gardner has taken every precaution to ensure guests are safe with tables set up six feet apart and no contact ordering, while still having fun in the wood pergola dining decks surrounded by 25″ coconut palms, a reflecting pond, and a meditation area. While the process of bringing the space together was no easy feat, the results definitely prove their worth. “This was perhaps our most ambitious project to date—transforming an empty, dusty entire downtown NYC city block (24,000 square feet) in Hudson Square with no electricity, water, or sewer connections—into a lush tropical oasis and full service restaurant (seating 450 pre-COVID, and currently 250 guests) and all in just 3 months!”, enthuses Gardner. “It was end of January 2018 when we were initially presented with this almost insane opportunity. The first thing I did after our site visit was find a palm tree farm in Florida. I asked the wholesale price of a 30″coconut palm and based on that answer said, ‘We can do this!’” Gardner then went into overdrive sketching and visualizing. He had a very strong vision manifest quite quickly: a dramatic, symmetrical layout with central structure flanked by twin pergola dining decks and an outer 360-degree lounge. “I saw our iconic pergola and GITANO neon sign in the middle of Grand Street, knowing the people would Instagram with the backdrop of palms against the iconic Herzog & De Mueron and the Freedom Tower buildings, and I visualized a long, palm tree-lined runway right through the center of the property.”

Next Gardner enlisted GITANO’s in-house architect and design team in Tulum to start designing the structures and all components of the project under his and his partner’s close direction. “It was incredibly complex pulling this off in NYC with so many government departments involved including the Department of Buildings, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Fire Department, the Department of Health, the State Liquor Authority, and others,” explains Gardner. “Everything was challenging, including getting a full liquor license approved in record time; but the most complex and challenging part was without question the permits and process to get utilities to the site—a project that can take 18 months plus, typically. We have learned so many lessons— too many to share briefly—but most importantly, each season we have been able to tweak and evolve the design.”

Since lighting plays an integral part in creating the vibe of any space, in bringing Tulum to NYC, it played a critical role in setting the scene. “Lighting brings the magic for sure. Everyone talks about our Tulum property as being magical, almost ethereal and otherworldly. A large part of this is the lighting design,” says Gardner. “From the neon sign lighting up the entrance pathway in pink; to the disco kisses of our giant disco ball suspended, swaying, and gently spinning in the palm trees welcoming our guests; to the soft pink and yellow lights wound in old ship rope; to the eclectic chandeliers hanging at different heights in an ancient fairy tree. Speaking of fairies, that’s the inspiration for the tiny hanging lights throughout the restaurant. We then have a very dramatic eight-foot vintage brass chandelier in our Jungle Room and mini crystal chandeliers over the bar.”

Combining the vibe of city life with inspiring elements of Tulum was top of mind in the creation of GITANO. “With NYC, we wanted to capture its essence and make it very NYC. There is much more light pollution in the city, so it’s a little harder to pull this off in some ways, but I do believe we have achieved magic here, also with many of the elements imported from Tulum,” says Gardner. “We are inspired by the idea of a tropical cabaret in glamorous days gone by, the roaring 20s, and pre-revolution Cuba juxtaposed with gypsies singing and dancing around a campfire in Morocco or India.”

With the COVID-19 outbreak sidelining a lot of venues, GITANO Garden of Love has been impacted as well and had to change in order to serve its guests. “We are so grateful to be a big outdoor dining property, which is really all anyone wants right now. The place was almost designed with this pandemic in mind, although we will not take credit for having foreseen any of this almost surreal environment, we are all currently living in,” notes Gardner. “We have easily been able to space out tables and plantings for social distancing. We are strictly enforcing masks and only serving guests who want to come for seated dining experiences. There are no standing groups or cocktail parties, for example. We take our position as one of the largest venues to be open in NYC very seriously and have taken lots of measures to make sure we are leaders in safety and social change. We have implemented temperature checks and online health screenings for all guests at the door. We have a new automated order and payment system, which reduces contact and increase safety. We built new outdoor hand-washing stations, Tulumjungle style. The most surprising and pleasing part is that our guests are respecting and embracing these changes and are happy that we are taking this so seriously.”


Further uptown, opening last spring, and showcasing the largest restaurant rooftop deck in NYC, Zona De Cuba also delivers enticing island vibes and can safely seat up to 150-200 guests. Social distancing aside, the vibrant space also features lush lighting, palm trees, red carpets, and much more. “We are unique when it comes to rooftops as Zona De Cuba is in a self-standing structure on top of a national, state and NYC landmark— the United States Post Office building, which occupies an entire city block. We have a total of 16,000 square feet, eight inside and eight outside,” explains Fernando Mateo, Vice President of Operations. With visually stunning, expansive city views, the space overlooks Yankee Stadium, the Major Deegan Expressway, the Harlem River, and the Harlem River Drive. It also offers views of the George Washington Bridge and the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge (also known as the Triborough Bridge). “Our views of the NYC skyline are amazing, and the fresh air and sights of Harlem nights are breathtaking. Navigating Zona De Cuba brings you back to the island of Cuba with its maze of palm trees, coconut palms, and greens. It’s something you experience only when you’re vacationing. Our antique furniture for the salitas are small living room sets that do not match, but they create a living room feeling.”

Of course, as with any design scheme, lighting also plays an important part in setting the mood here at Zona De Cuba. “It’s most important,” says Mateo. “Our antique sconces, chandeliers, bar lights, and pendants show the glamour of Old Havana. Outside our festoon lights take it to the next level, enough for people to see without taking away from the evening stars and moonlight. We keep our lighting with the times when Cuba was the destination of the rich and famous. After visiting Cuba, we realized that everything old works as new if put together properly.”

The fact that the neighborhood itself is up and coming is also a good sign for the restaurant. “Zona De Cuba is an experience everyone should have at least once in their lifetime. It’s not a regular night out for dinner – it’s much more than that,” enthuses Mateo. “Coming into the South Bronx or (SOBRO), as many call it, is seeing a neighborhood change right before your eyes. Rents for one-bedroom apartments are costing upwards of $2800.00, and the skyline along the Harlem River is towering with spectacular views of NYC.”

What of the impact of COVID-19? While sadly many restaurants are being shuttered, Zona De Cuba is still standing strong. “COVID-19 hurt all of us equally in the hospitality business, and we have dealt with it as best we can following all the guidelines and recommendations of the state,” says Mateo. “And at Zona De Cuba, we have gone beyond the government’s requirements of masks, gloves, and sanitizers. We implemented a monitoring app that keeps track of all employee symptoms for health and wellness. Every employee has downloaded the @work app by Achu Health, where they tell us their daily symptoms and our management team decides if they are ok to come to work—and so far, so good. We have only had one person who we felt was not feeling good enough to come into work. We think this is the future to keeping a healthy work environment. @Work securely monitors workplace health through tracking the signs of fatigue, cough, cold, flu, and viruses, and we think this revolutionary technology will be a game changer for businesses as states begin to reopen.”