Restaurants around the United States are getting creative with their outdoor dining set-ups as winter draws near.
Expanded outdoor dining provided a lifeline for struggling eateries over the summer when city and state governments put strict limitations how many patrons could sit indoors, where coronavirus spreads more easily.
Now, as temperatures drop and indoor dining restrictions remain in place across large swaths of the country, businesses are scrambling to find ways to keep diners coming back for al-fresco service into the colder months.
In recent weeks the streets of major cities from New York to Chicago to San Francisco have been flooded with a variety of upgraded outdoor dining structures including two-sided tents, wooden bungalows and individual igloos as restaurant owners scramble to get their hands on heaters.
Many restaurants have poured thousands of dollars into making outdoor dining areas both comfortable and safe – amid expert warnings that some structures could pose higher risk for virus’ transmission than others.
For some of the tens of thousands of businesses nationwide that have struggled for months just to break even, convincing patrons to eat outside is seen as a last line of defense against closing permanently.
NYC: Restaurants around the United States are getting creative with their outdoor dining set-ups as winter draws near. Pictured: Patrons sit inside bubbles at Cafe Du Soleil on Manhattan’s Upper East Side on November 20
NYC: Workers set up an outdoor patio at a restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village on November 20
CHICAGO: A plastic tent stands on the sidewalk outside a restaurant in Chicago
CHICAGO: Several restaurants are offering a mix of uncovered and covered outdoor seating as temperatures drop
SAN FRANCISCO: Heaters line a patio at a restaurant in San Francisco where a metal roof was installed to protect from rain
SAN FRANCISCO: Patrons sit next to heaters in an outdoor dining area at a restaurant in San Francisco on Tuesday
BOSTON: Bubbles enclose tables outside the Metropolis restaurant in Boston’s South End
BOSTON: Heaters surround an empty patio in Boston’s North End as restaurants struggle to bring in patrons in cold weather
In New York City, where restaurants have been crippled by the strictest COVID rules seen anywhere in the US, Mayor Bill de Blasio moved to keep outdoor dining open year-round to help lessen the strain caused by a 25 percent limit on indoor capacity.
The city’s Open Restaurants program allows for full capacity inside partial tents – meaning at least 50 percent of the side wall is open – while full tents are capped at 25 percent capacity, the same as indoors.
The program also offers three options for hearing equipment: electrical radiant heaters, natural gas heaters and propane heaters, which were previously banned.
Only electrical heaters are allowed inside tents, while the other two types cannot be used in an enclosed space.
The rules have created a major headache for many businesses, according to Nicole Biscardi, a restaurant adviser hired by the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce.
Biscardi said she’s helped dozens of restaurants navigate what she called an ‘alphabet soup of regulations’.
‘It’s a very precarious time for these businesses,’ she told the New York Times. ‘They’re being hit with cumbersome regulations and a lot of extra expenses.’
Those expenses vary from restaurant to restaurant, as some keep it simple with heaters dotted around regular sidewalk seating while others shell out thousands to build custom dining spaces.
For example Danny Perez, owner of Blend Astoria in Queens, told the Times he had spent ‘five figures’ erecting a dining chalet with wood beams, an insulated roof and chandeliers.
‘You’ve got to adapt somehow or you shut down,’ he said. ‘What are our choices?’
Likewise Treis Hill, the co-owner of two bars in Brooklyn, Baby Jane and Dick and Jane’s, told the newspaper they have shelled out more than $16,000 on barriers, tents and heaters for their outdoor dining space.
But Hill said he worries that the investment won’t pay off in the long-run, as they’ve struggled to fill up outside despite the improvements. He said one of his bars seated just two patrons under tents fit for 20 on a recent cold afternoon.
‘I think it’s going to be kind of gloomy for the winter for a lot of businesses,’ Hill said.
NYC: People dine inside greenhouses at Industry Kitchen in Lower Manhattan on November 20
NYC: Back-to-back bungalows line a street in the East Village as restaurants adapt to cooler weather
NYC: An artistic patio with blue wood slats is seen in Manhattan on November 20
Meanwhile other restaurant owners are trying to be more optimistic.
Restaurateur Daniel Boulud, who oversees more than a dozen restaurants around the world, spoke to Reuters about how his New York City flagship Daniel has adapted to the recent challenges earlier this month.
‘With 25 percent [indoor] occupancy in New York City, we had the chance to build outdoor cabanas out of wood, with insulation and Plexiglas. This is something we’ve never seen before at Restaurant Daniel,’ he said.
‘People feel very private, cozy and safe in the bungalow and the heated bungalows are protected from snow, rain and cold. The menu is also winterizing itself, so that will help keep the guests warm.
‘Out of these challenges, we raise opportunities. And one of those opportunities is to come to Restaurant Daniel and have your own dining room on the sidewalk.’
Restaurateurs’ anxieties have amplified in recent months as New York City’s coronavirus case counts took a troubling turn for the worse, prompting Gov Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio to raise the possibility of a second shutdown.
Similar surges have been seen around the country, leading many cities and states to impose new business restrictions.
NYC: Diners enjoy a sunny day at a restaurant in East Village, Manhattan, on November 20
NYC: One restaurant in East Village built a unique outdoor dining space with individual rooms
NYC: Patrons enjoy drinks inside an igloo at Cafe Du Soleil on Manhattan’s Upper West Side on November 20
In California, Governor Gavin Newsom placed a ban on non-essential gatherings between 10pm and 5am last week.
In Los Angeles, which has not permitted indoor dining of any kind since the spring, a ban on all outdoor dining is set to go into effect on Wednesday night. That ban is slated to last for three weeks but could be extended if coronavirus rates don’t improve.
To the north in San Francisco, officials confirmed on Tuesday that outdoor dining will remain open for the time being, despite predictions that the county will soon move into California’s most restrictive purple reopening tier.
Some eateries in the city have already followed New York City’s lead with inventive outdoor structures amid cooler temperatures.
San Francisco’s rules for outdoor dining areas are far less extensive than the Big Apple’s, in part because temperatures are typically much more mild so heavy insulation isn’t as necessary.
The city requires that tables be kept six feet apart and permits the use of umbrellas, canopies, and other shade structures so long as they allow for ‘free flow of air through the area’.
SAN FRANCISCO: A makeshift structure allows restaurant patrons to dine outdoors in San Francisco on Tuesday
SAN FRANCISCO: Restaurants have aimed to put a personal touch on their outdoor spaces
SAN FRANCISCO: Workers set up a new outdoor dining structure in San Francisco on Tuesday
SAN FRANCISCO: Patrons sit inside a heated tent at Mel’s Drive-In in San Francisco on Tuesday
Restaurateurs in America’s coldest cities are facing much larger challenges with outdoor dining as they look for ways to keep diners safe from wind and snow while also adhering to city restrictions.
In Chicago, where restaurants are used to shuttering al-fresco service the moment the temperature drops below 50 degrees, many establishments have added temporary roofs to their patios with heaters scattered all around, while others have opted for bubbles enclosing each table.
The city’s rules require restaurants to obtain permits for heaters and tents, which can only have 50 percent coverage on the side. Igloos are also required to have ‘adequate ventilation to allow for air circulation’.
Many business owners in Chicago have had trouble sourcing heaters amid high demand. Tracy Hurst, owner of Metropolitan Brewery, said she struck out twice before finally finding the 10 heat lamps she needed for her patio.
She said she wasn’t sure the lamps will be enough to keep patrons coming back as the weather gets even colder.
‘No one has been through this situation so, honestly, we just react to everything, day by day, the best that we can,’ Hurst told Bloomberg.
CHICAGO: Restaurateurs in America’s coldest cities are facing much larger challenges with outdoor dining as they look for ways to keep diners safe from wind and snow while also adhering to city restrictions
CHICAGO: The city’s rules require restaurants to obtain permits for heaters and tents, which can only have 50 percent coverage on the side
In Boston, where indoor dining is capped at 25 people with a curfew of 9.30pm, outdoor dining has nearly ground to a halt.
The city introduced an expanded outdoor dining program similar to New York City’s over the summer, but it is slated to expire on December 1, meaning restaurants will no longer be allowed to use streets and sidewalks for seating.
But even if that program was extended, many establishments say its not worth trying to upkeep outdoor spaces that are highly susceptible to weather conditions.
When the first snow of the season came in late October, the Boston Globe published several photos of restaurant patios covered in sludge that took down entire tents.
In the weeks since, some businesses introduced new sturdier structures in hopes of extending al-fresco dining just a little bit longer.
BOSTON: In Boston, where indoor dining is capped at 25 people with a curfew of 9.30pm, outdoor dining has nearly ground to a halt – but a select few establishment have found ways to keep customers coming
BOSTON: Tables sit empty at a restaurant in Somerville amid low temperatures
BOSTON: Two women look over a menu between space heaters in a parking lot-turned-dining area
BOSTON: Patrons bundle up in parkas to brave an outdoor patio on Boston’s North End