NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - The wine was flowing, the stars were shining, the music was playing, the food had just arrived and everything was right in Deborah Bello's world tonight.
She and her husband, Gary Battaglia, drove 40 minutes to eat at Catharine Lombardi on the first night in which outdoor dining was reintroduced across the state.
Bello said they had spent the COVID-19 pandemic following Gov. Phil Murphy's Stay at Home order and dreaming of returning to normal.
"We eat out five nights a week, " Bello said, "but in the first night we had to come here."
Said Battaglia, "Tonight feels like a celebration. We've been looking forward to this for three months."
Owner Mark Pascal said the restaurant is accustomed to outdoor service because it offers seating under the stars during spring and summer months.
That wasn't the case a few blocks away at Harvest Moon, where the outdoor service was new to the staff. Business was so good, however, that manager Philip Choi had to add a few more tables on the sidewalk along George Street to accommodate diners.
"At first, we were seeing the regular customers coming back, but then we started to see a lot of new ones.," he said. "People are eager to come back and enjoy a meal at a restaurant."
Things were a little slower in Easton Avenue, where Nirvanis outside seating was largely empty.
That's not to say the kati rolls weren't doing a brisk business; takeout orders and deliveries for Indian restaurant continued well into the night.
"I just think people are a little apprehensive about rushing right back," said owner Niraj Jivani.
Across the street at Thomas Sweet, owner Mike Schnur was allowing one customer at a time inside his chocolate shop.
He said he has plans to add benches outside the ice cream shop and install a sliding window.
"People seem excited to be able to come in," he said. "They missed the freedom of going into their favorite places. "