Motel Morris al Fresco

| 06 Aug 2020 | 04:33

Glimmers of life are beginning to sparkle again in Chelsea’s restaurant scene. Soon, Motel Morris’s stars will shine again upon what has now become the city’s only dining capabiltity: al fresco. Never was the outdoor table my choice, when there was one; I prefer the cool, dry calm of a controlled dining room. But I’m not complaining here; at this point, you take what you can get (and like it).

Motel Morris has fashioned a picturesque build-out into Seventh Avenue, complete with two-tiered navy canopies sheltering sturdy ivory gazebos protected with reflectors. This has not been an easy transition: Morris’s strength pre-pandemic was a vibrant bar scene and a sense of family cultivated by the festive, welcoming atmosphere inside. So the whole endeavor required a lot of planning and even more budgeting, all underneath an umbrella of concern.

To the layperson, it might seem that a little business is better than no business, and the preponderance of restaurants that remain shuttered would be better off at least pulling in something with takeout and delivery. But Morris’s owner, Sam Nidel says that while each restaurant’s situation differs, for them, myriad factors played into the hesitance to reopen. First and foremost came safety. He and his brother, Brett, and the latter’s wife, Tamara McCarthy, who comprise the ownership team, accurately assessed the situation as “very grim” three months ago, but as our infection rate waned in the city, they knew it was time to figure out a reopening plan.

According to Sam, this was a lot like opening a brand new restaurant, so much had the situation changed. But thanks to a set of reliable and gracious investors, along with various government loans, they were able to limp through lockdown, using it as a time to strategize the new restrictions and reality that has now befallen the restaurant industry. In hindsight, he pondered whether getting things back up and running again three weeks ago wouldn’t have been ideal, but shifting from how things were to how things are is much more akin to steering a large ship. It takes time, research, and reevaluation of pretty much every aspect of service to accommodate the new reality. Much like our initial infection rate, the learning curve is steep.

But Team Morris is taking it in stride, albeit with a gait and choreography that is completely new, and some might say improved. All measures have prioritized the health of both the staff and clientele. The menu had to be somewhat revamped as well, although they are sticking with their best sellers, like the roast chicken, malty vinegar fries, masaman curry mussels and their classic burger. Chef Bill McDaniel, who proudly includes Chelsea’s beloved Red Cat in his resume, has stuck with the squad through the pandemic, and a tight-knit crew they are.

The name originated from that family-vacation feel when one clan rents out a big block of hotel rooms: both Nidels and McCarthy all live above the restaurant. Keeping things in the family, Morris was their maternal grandfather, and they named the eatery in his honor, and motel just sounded cuter than hotel. Now, with the dining room extended into the street, the motel part makes more sense.

And while the whole pandemic is still so difficult to accept, the return of our favorite restaurants, like Motel Morris, offer a reassuring optimism. We may never be able to go back to how things were before, but with the ingenuity and resilience of businesses like this, New York will continue to live up to its title of dining capital of the world.