Outdoor dining surged amid COVID. But is eating al fresco at restaurants here to stay?

·6 min read
In Tucson, Arizona, restaurants and bars, including Ten55 Brewing, have built permanent structures for outdoor seating into on-street parking spots.
In Tucson, Arizona, restaurants and bars, including Ten55 Brewing, have built permanent structures for outdoor seating into on-street parking spots.

The Skunk Hollow Tavern in Hartland, Vermont, occupies an 18th-century colonial building, and for the past three decades it has been a family-owned restaurant with a devoted following.

When the coronavirus pandemic shut down indoor dining, the Tavern added an extensive curbside pickup program, including expanded weekly menu specials and a takeout craft cocktail program. Owners built an impressive outdoor dining space, with widely spaced tables in and around beautiful gardens, complete with an outdoor stage to continue its long-running tradition of open mic and band nights.

The Skunk, as it's known, happens to be my longtime local spot, and both owners and patrons agree that COVID-19 or not, outdoor dining there was long overdue.

The pandemic-inspired silver lining has proven popular and will remain going forward. But that's not the case everywhere.

As restrictions ease, the future of many creative pivots restaurants made amid the coronavirus pandemic are wildly varied, but of all the changes to America’s dining scene, the embrace of outdoor dining seems likely to be the most enduring.

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Al fresco dining has always been popular in fair-weather locales, but during the pandemic, warmer-climate eateries added misters and shades, cool-weather spots installed heaters, and for colder weather, greenhouse, igloos and yurts were erected. Many will stay up.

US catching up to European al fresco dining trend

“Outdoor dining is prevalent in Europe and part of the restaurant culture, and we are now adopting it and creating that vibe here, too," sayid Ahmass Fakahany, CEO and founder of Altamarea Group, which owns New York’s acclaimed Michelin-starred Marea and Ai Fiori, as well the Morini and Nicoletta brands in Washington, D.C., New Jersey and Miami. "In the U.S., clients have really enjoyed the option to dine outdoors, not just for safety reasons, but to enjoy the al fresco experience in the seasonal months. Outdoor dining is here to stay and has become part of the dining experience.”

Fakahany feels so strongly about the trend that he's making it an integral part of every new restaurant. “We have extended the outdoor option in every venue we have, and as we look for new spaces, we now consider the outside space element as essential.”

Julie Mulligan, founder of New York-based Black Tap Craft Burgers & Beer, with locations from Las Vegas to Disneyland to Zurich, agrees.

“Europe has had a strong extended season outdoor cafe/dining scene for years, and it seems the U.S. has now caught on," Mulligan said. "I think we will continue to see a greater desire and willingness to dine outdoors even when the weather is not perfect for it. Personally, as we look for future Black Tap locations, we are putting much more weight on the outdoor space than ever before – it has become a must-have instead of a would-like-to-have.”

Local laws, ordinances affect future of outdoor dining

In some cities, the potential for restaurants to continue outdoor dining is dependent on local laws.

In New York City, zoning rules to allow expanded sidewalk and parking-spot dining had to be suspended, though any permanent changes would require public hearings and likely take months to resolve.

Chef William Emery of New York’s Tannat Market & Tavern worries. “The future of outdoor dining depends on the generosity of our local governments. For many of us, that's a bleak prospect. We have all spent tens of thousands of dollars in lean times on infrastructure. Our city says outdoor dining will continue but not what regulations we need to follow. It is very possible we will have to tear down and rebuild outdoor structures and pay city fees to have them, which will mean many businesses won't be able to keep them.”

New York has already rescinded its pandemic acceptance of to-go cocktails.

San Diego, famous for its exceptional weather year-round, saw a boom the industry expects will keep going strong.

“I love driving around and admiring all the incredible outdoor additions at my favorite restaurants, and I think that San Diegans feel the same way,” says Niccolò Angius, co-owner of Italian eatery Cesarina. “We were able to find the silver lining of a terrible situation, and I strongly believe that, with the appropriate regulations, the city will allow most of these ‘temporary’ structures to stay permanently. San Diego is working on a program, Spaces as Places, that will give local restaurant owners recourse to make these street-side dining rooms permanent fixtures.”

While some restaurants purchased temporary plastic igloos or tents, others added permanent outdoor dining spaces, like two of these “parklets” seating 60 at San Diego's Cesarina.
While some restaurants purchased temporary plastic igloos or tents, others added permanent outdoor dining spaces, like two of these “parklets” seating 60 at San Diego's Cesarina.

At his own Italian restaurant, known for its house-made artisanal pastas, Angius added two fully equipped dining patios, with 1,250 square feet and about 60 seats. The extra al fresco space, paired with takeout and delivery, allowed the restaurant to maintain the same profitability as before the pandemic.

Yurts, greenhouses, other structures guard outdoor dining from weather

Creative responses to the nationwide demand for outdoor dining have been interesting to say the least. When the St. Regis Deer Valley, a luxury hotel in Park City, Utah, opened for last winter’s ski season, the outdoor solution came in the form of three 12-foot yurts, General Manager of Restaurants Zachary Lippincott explained. The structures were reserved for just a single party at a time.

Even restaurants in frigid wintry locations have embraced the outdoor dining trend. The St. Regis Deer Valley, a ski hotel in Park City, Utah, imported three Mongolian yurt tents to create its Yurt Village, which will become a winter fixture going forward post-pandemic. In summer, the space is transitioned to a new beer garden.
Even restaurants in frigid wintry locations have embraced the outdoor dining trend. The St. Regis Deer Valley, a ski hotel in Park City, Utah, imported three Mongolian yurt tents to create its Yurt Village, which will become a winter fixture going forward post-pandemic. In summer, the space is transitioned to a new beer garden.

Yurt Village opened Dec. 21 and was sold out all ski season. “As the seasons changed, we pivoted the same space to become a sprawling beer garden where games can be played, views taken in and local suds consumed all while being able to spread far enough apart from others for continued comfort," Lippincott said. "When the snow returns again this winter, so will Yurt Village. Now we can provide year-round options to dine outside.”

In Provincetown, Massachusetts, one of the most popular tourist spots on Cape Cod, Liz’s Cafe went with plastic faux igloos while nearby Spindler’s restaurant added greenhouses and an outdoor fire pit.

Many other restaurants across the country followed both these paths. Snooze, an A.M. Eatery, a breakfast chain found in the South, Southwest and Rockies, went lower tech, adding tents and blankets to expand the season in its cooler locales.

The venerable Otesaga Resort Hotel in Cooperstown, New York, tried a hybrid approach, adding a seasonal “Garden Dining Room” semi-enclosed porch that is open-air in warm weather and more like a tent in winter. Not only was it so successful that it is staying permanently, but for the first time in more than a century, the hotel, which has shut down from Thanksgiving until Easter, will now remain open year-round.

For more than a century, the Otesaga Resort in Cooperstown, New York, has closed for the winter, but with the addition of this Winter Garden Room extension, it is staying open year-round for the first time. The walls come down in warm weather for increased outdoor dining.
For more than a century, the Otesaga Resort in Cooperstown, New York, has closed for the winter, but with the addition of this Winter Garden Room extension, it is staying open year-round for the first time. The walls come down in warm weather for increased outdoor dining.

In Las Vegas, giant MGM Resorts already had many extremely popular outdoor spaces – its massive pool complexes where the company introduced mobile ordering at pools, spokeswoman Jenn Michaels said. "Guests can now order food and drinks from the comfort of their chaise lounge. We believe we’ll see the mobile ordering option grow to other locations, as well."

The consensus seems to be that outdoor dining is here to stay, and unless municipalities force their hands, most restaurants that have invested in outdoor dining are sticking with it – unless they have a good reason not to.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Outdoor dining: COVID pandemic changes restaurants' approach, for good

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