Ever since local mandates and restrictions shuttered dining rooms this spring, diners and restaurants around the country have embraced the al fresco life.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, experts touted outdoor dining as one of the safest ways to visit restaurants – and cities rose to the occasion, offering additional permitting to help expand available seating. Tables popped up in plazas, courtyards, sidewalks, and even streets, all becoming part of the “new normal” of dining.
Now, as summer fades to fall’s shorter days and cooler temperatures, restaurants are forced to get creative in order to keep outdoor spaces humming and to continue to serve as many people as possible.
“I would never open a restaurant without a patio today,” says Jason Santos, who operates four restaurants in Boston, including the Southern-inspired Buttermilk & Bourbon and theater district’s Abby Lane. At Buttermilk & Bourbon, he broke every sales record this summer, success that he attributes entirely to expanded outdoor seating facilitated by the city.
Boston officials extended the outdoor dining season until December 1, while in other cities, such as New York, the program has been extended indefinitely. Either way, local regulations are just part of the puzzle – an equally important factor is weather.
Looking to fall, Santos says, he is realistic about Boston’s climate. He’s added more patio heaters and umbrellas at all of his restaurants, and since Buttermilk & Bourbon sits below street level, it’s protected from the wind. Still, he admits, “Fall scares me – I don’t care how many heaters you have. But we’re going to push it to the limit as far as we can.”
Cabanas, greenhouses, and pods (oh my!)
When space and permits allow, some restaurants have invested in new and unexpected formats to give diners more options to eat outside.
In the spring, when Houston restricted indoor seating capacity, neighborhood bar and eatery B.B. Lemon tented its patio, which is also heated for year-round comfort. At the same time, the team sought a solution for the restaurant’s 1,500 square-foot yard lined with trees and a fence. They purchased private wind- and weather-proof cabanas to fill the space, decking them out with private tables and lights, so that the whole yard felt like a luxurious resort. The significant upfront investment paid for itself in a single day of outdoor service. (Two guests have even proposed marriage in the cabanas.)
“It’s almost like a garden party every night, with spacing for tables,” says B.B. Lemon founder Benjamin Berg. “If they are all full, we can seat more than 80 people, and everybody is still 10 feet away from each other. You don’t feel like you’re in a restaurant in the middle of a city.”
Still, Houston weather is child’s play compared to cities up north, where restaurants have to battle more severe elements. This summer in New York, the husband-and-wife team behind Gnoccheria opened Ampia Rooftop, a massive third-floor terrace in the Financial District designed for a socially distant dining experience. In addition to standard table seating, five individual plastic greenhouses cover the space, each designed to seat two people (and available for reservations). The enclosed greenhouses offer protection from rain and heavy winds.
With cities eager for weather-proof dining solutions, some are calling in the experts. In late August, Chicago announced a Winter Design Challenge to solve the dilemma of continuing patio and rooftop dining. More than 600 entries from 13 countries poured in, suggesting solutions such as domes, tents, pods, and heated tables. Other plans called for refurbishing shipping containers and school buses to park in front of restaurants. (See all of the proposals here.)
According to Eater, the solution that received the most positive feedback was the Slide & Dine, featuring modular greenhouses with heating and ventilation systems that can be placed in parking lots and on streets. But with most restaurants losing money under current regulations, affordability is critical – meaning any successful, widespread design solution needs to come with a funding solution.
Embracing the great outdoors
As restaurateurs and design experts attempt to circumvent the seasons, others have offered a radically simple approach to cold-weather dining: accept it and prepare accordingly.
San Francisco’s The Vault sits in a building that occupies a whole city block, including a massive plaza. When The Vault shuttered, they got the building’s blessing to build an entirely new restaurant in the plaza, utilizing the space’s bamboo garden: The Vault Garden.
Over the past several months, they have had to address a range of weather concerns – a chilly summer followed by a heat wave and a fog of wildfire smoke – but continue to lean into outdoor dining. For fall, The Vault Garden offers heat lamps, single-use blankets, and disposable heat packs, as well as a weather-proof tent for private events.
“In the long run, [outdoor dining] is much safer, regardless of whether indoor options are allowed,” says partner Ryan Cole. “We have to figure out how to work within this.”
In the spring, Johan Botma, who operates the New York City trattoria Sfoglia, expanded his outdoor seating as part of the city’s Open Streets program, eventually building a deck to accommodate more diners. Echoing Santos, he says outdoor dining “has been a lifeline” this summer. Even when the city allows dining rooms to open at 25% capacity at the end of September, Botma says the volume won’t be enough to sustain Sfoglia’s business.
For the past month, he’s been keeping an eye on the changing weather and looking for solutions to continue serving outside. Like Cole, he turned to blankets as a first line of defense against the cold. He’s partnering with a cleaning service that will launder the blankets, then individually pack them in plastic daily (think airplane blanket, but better). At $4 to $5 a blanket, the costs add up, so Botma is exploring ways to pass the cleaning costs onto guests who opt in. He’s prepared for some diners to push back against the rental fee, but predicts that most will be grateful for the option.
“These are the kinds of changes we’re going to implement and see how it develops,” says Botma. “People may be hesitant to go out and sit in the cold because they don’t want to get sick. We need to find something to make people feel comfortable and secure.”
Sfoglia’s canopy also comes with detachable sides, which will protect against the wind. And Botma is exploring options for outdoor heaters, but New York City doesn’t make it easy: propane heaters are prohibited in outdoor spaces. The other options are less desirable, as natural gas requires a long and expensive permitting process and electric heaters need more power than most restaurants can spare (not to mention the potential danger of running electric power outside, where it’s exposed to the elements).
Just outside of Boston, in nearby Cambridge, the modern American restaurant Harvest is making efforts to extend use of its outdoor space, since it’s currently the seating area most in demand. The patio features a fireplace, overhead heaters, and a retractable screen covering to extend the al fresco season. Harvest chef Joshua Livsey also uses his menu to play up the après ski vibes that the fireplace lends, serving hot chocolate and personal s’mores.
“We have shoveled snow, lit the fire, turned on the heaters, and sat guests at outside tables in winter – they loved it!” says Allison Cullen, Harvest’s director of marketing. “It was a fun experience for them and allowed us to use the space when we normally wouldn’t be able to.”
As design experts suggest, maybe one solution for dining outside this winter isn’t to evade the cold, but to channel your inner snow day kid and lean into it. As they say in Norway and Sweden, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes.” Now is the perfect time to invest in long underwear, a parka, warm boots, and cozy hats – and keep the year of outdoor dining alive.