Behind the Velvet Curtain, the Inner Dinner

On Friday, March 7, a friendly hostess materialized through a wall of thick green velvet at Al Di Là, the acclaimed Italian restaurant in Park Slope, to take names. The rain was unremitting, and the floor-to-ceiling curtain formed a small vestibule, containing an overflowing umbrella stand, between door and dining room. The curtain was overhung with a lighter, white-and-red-striped cloth version—from a market “someplace in Tuscany,” said the restaurant’s co-owner, Anna Klinger—which gave the entrance a festive feeling. But on this evening, moisture culled from several hours’ worth of drenched patrons had given the curtains more of a car wash effect, their soggy folds grazing expensive handbags.

Ms. Klinger’s husband, Emiliano Coppa, made the green curtain himself about two weeks ago when a similar one shredded after hanging in the entryway for nine years. “I think the velvet one is utilitarian,” she said, meaning that it keeps the elements at bay. “And the other one … is both. There’s some element of theater. You walk through and it’s sort of like, ‘Ta-da! Here I am.’”

It’s a point of some contention when restaurant entryway curtains became an inevitable part of New York life, much like pay phones that don’t work and Duane Reade drugstores on every other block. Have they been there forever, crude barriers against cold blasts of winter air? Or have they multiplied and fancified in recent years, a design element borrowed from the sexy “lounges” de rigueur in nightclub design since the mid-1990’s? Who can say for sure?

What is certain is that they have created a new little social moment—one fraught with hesitancy, awkwardness, drama—for the some of the city’s more neurotic diners.

“I think the curtaining implies a desire restaurateurs perceive in their patrons, that of wanting to go back into a womblike place. Safe. Muffled. Warm,” said Howie, 29, a magazine writer who didn’t want his last name used. He cited the billowing folds at Blue Ribbon and Burger Joint at Le Parker Meridian, which he called “the most curtain-dependent restaurant in town.” Could it be mere coincidence that the latter is a no-frills burger joint, which tends to attract a male-heavy clientele?

“You enter through this … slit. You’re born into the bar!” said Zachary Woolfe, 23, an assistant editor at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, embellishing the feminine analogy. He added: “I think it’s a very pretentious way of dealing with [the elements]. Oh, we’re draping ourselves in burgundy velvet as a way to stave off the cold?”

‘A Private Little Nook’

Restaurateurs stress that the curtains are mostly practical, especially when heating bills have reached all-time highs. “We needed a barrier,” said Sean Sant Amour, one of the partners at Blue Ribbon, of the “burgundy brick-red” curtain that has hung at the entrance of his restaurant on Sullivan Street for 15 years. The eight other Blue Ribbons, with locations from Soho to Park Slope (where Peter Sarsgaard and Maggie Gyllenhaal—date night!—were spotted not so long ago peering through the window), sport similar models. Mr. Sant Amour believes “we picked up the trick from a French bistro … but I could be wrong. We couldn’t have a vestibule, so when the door opened, it was gonna be cold.”

So why then do many leave them up through the steaming summer months? The aptly named Mr. Sant Amour suggested the curtain might provide a sort of, shall we say, romantic transport for some customers. “We’re open till four in the morning, and it can be a little hideaway for people late at night between the door and the dining room, if you catch my drift,” he said. “Late at night, when people are feeling amorous and under the influence … It’s a private little nook.”

Dushan Zaric, co-owner and principal bartender at Employees Only, the speakeasy-like joint in the West Village whose velvet burgundy curtain usually hangs behind a psychic sitting in the vestibule, said that the expanse of fabric has a purposively dramatic element. “In our concept, we are setting the stage,” he said grandly. “You should think, ‘What else is hidden behind the curtain?’ It’s a stage for actors. Very similar to that is the Employees Only stage we set up every night for the show that’s going to happen, and the production is called Theater of the Possibility.” Ooh! With a curtain, Mr. Zaric added, “you enter a place that always looks and feels the same way. No matter what the season.”

Behind the Velvet Curtain, the Inner Dinner