Considered a safer alternative to indoor dining, patios and outdoor spaces are currying favor with guests during COVID-19.
Since late spring, the on-again, off-again nature of dine-in restrictions has left many operators scrambling to adhere to local mandates and, when possible, revive on-site business. Al fresco dining is one means of welcoming guests back to the restaurant in a safe, socially distanced manner.
For concepts that lacked outdoor dining pre-pandemic, adding those spaces involves some quick modifications, like reinventing outdoor cocktail areas into full dining “rooms” and converting individual parking spaces into small seating arrangements, called parklets.
Regardless of the restaurant, the outdoors-only approach has been an adjustment for concepts of all sizes. And, while most restaurants now have open-air seating available, the challenges haven’t disappeared. Soon enough the temperatures will turn cooler and the days shorter, forcing many operators to rethink outdoor dining once again.
But for now, restaurants aren’t thinking that far ahead. Instead they are taking the outdoors approach one step at a time by working to create an experience that’s both social and safe. We spoke to three operators about how they’re achieving that balance.
Co-owner, Bakan | Miami
We’re located very centrally in Miami, on Second Avenue in Wynwood. We have really high traffic, so our design focus from day one has been on our terrace; people always want to sit on our terrace. There’s a really great atmosphere out there, with cacti imported from Arizona and Mexico and a great sound system.
We had to take half the tables out of our terrace due to the virus, but so far, there’s been a great response from people. The city allowed us to use an ample sidewalk for a few extra tables, plus additional parking spaces. So we have recouped some of the lost seating due to social distancing.
Guests have been following guidelines and helping us create a safe environment. As long as the possibility of being infected continues, there’s going to be a group that is scared to go out, particularly older patrons. But a lot of guests have learned how important restaurants are through this, and they realize that it’s about more than food—it’s about experience, too.
Sommelier & GM, Mintwood Place | Washington, D.C.
We’re an eight-year-old restaurant in a high-density, residential neighborhood with heavy foot traffic. We closed only briefly when the pandemic started to recalibrate our menu. Then we opened again, and we immediately and consistently became very busy.
We opened for outdoor dining 10 days after outdoor dining was permitted. We did that on purpose. We didn’t want to be first out of the gate; we didn’t want a generic opening; we wanted a detailed, well-prepared approach.
When I started, we had a bistro feel outside on our patio. People were tightly packed at tables. Before the pandemic, we had already started thinning it out a little bit. We got away from some of that French bistro feel to let people have a pleasant outdoor dining experience. Now, the patio looks pretty much exactly like it did before the pandemic but a little more spacious.
Our patio is very much a part of our restaurant. We are a neighborhood operation, and we wanted to convey a strong sense of our core principles and brand outside. We wanted it to be familiar, comfortable, yet special. Our color scheme is the same indoors and outdoors, and we have the same rustic decor outside as inside, which marks our patio as part of the same institution.
We’re in this for the long term; we’re going to do this seriously for quite awhile. We’re considering adding tents outdoors to protect against weather, and we will probably add heaters, too, that will help in colder temperatures.
Owner, The Edge | Jackson, New Jersey
The Edge is lucky; we’re on a really large piece of property. Our patio was constructed along with our building and will hold around 45 seats under an outdoor tent. We have a double-wide sidewalk that is about 7 feet wide where we’ve placed umbrella tables; a floating roofline that, when the weather permits, will accommodate more diners outdoors; and another sidewalk strip where we’re going to add more seating. We’re utilizing every inch, and we can seat about 70 people max.
We had only been open around six months when the pandemic started. We opened in October, when the weather was cold, so even though the patio was prepped when we opened, we haven’t been able to use it until now. So setting up for dining and training staff to work out there was completely new to us. Initially, the space was for cocktails and small plates only, but it’s been working so well as a full dining space that we might consider utilizing the tent long term.
Lighting has been a huge mood-maker outside. We added bistro lighting and votives on each table. Music also provides a cool vibe. We’ve really tried to maintain the upscale nature of our concept and make it as appealing as possible on the patio, and our guests have responded.