5 Popular Ways Restaurant Operators Can Extend Outdoor Dining Into Colder Months

Back of House Staff | November 13, 2020, 12:27 PM CST

5 Popular Ways Restaurant Operators Can Extend Outdoor Dining Into Colder Months

Unless you're in a perpetually warm part of the country, outdoor dining solutions are becoming critical to keeping restaurants open this winter (in addition to creative takeout ideas). We've seen a variety of cold-weather dining concepts crop up in recent months, several of which hail from cold-weather capital Chicago, where current COVID-19 policies cap indoor dining capacity at 40%, and the city chose to host a winter dining design competition instead, awarding $5,000 to residents who came up with the best outdoor dining solutions.

Here are the top ideas from around the country for keeping diners both toasty and safe in the winter months. 

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1. Bubbles, Tents, Greenhouses, Cabins, and Domes

In cities where the practice is allowed—which is to say, pretty much everywhere but San Francisco—an array of plastic mini homes are popping up in restaurant gardens, rooftops, sidewalks, and parking lots, creating cozy dining solutions for the cold weather months. In fact, one Detroit restaurant is made up of nothing but geodesic domes right now.

Although bubble dining presents its own set of problems (they need to be disinfected between parties; the guests need to either be quarantining together or the ventilation within the domes has to be great, etc.) it is definitely an aesthetically-pleasing way to keep diners safe and enforce social distancing policies among tables. 

2. Heat lamps and radiant space heaters

Whether diners enjoy their experience in tiny bubbles or on an open patio, heating lamps are quickly becoming a critical component of outside dining (and fortunately, are becoming increasingly allowed by city governments). However, in cold-weather cities like boston, there's a space heater shortage that may make it hard for some restaurants to access them this year. And of course, there are heat lamps and there are heat lamps: as is so often the case, the pricey, massive kind are far more effective than smaller, more affordable ones.

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3. Kotatsu Tables 

Kotatsu Tables are a Japanese invention that may be about to have its moment here in the States. One of the winning design solutions in the Chicago winter dining design competition was inspired by this traditional design, which historically features a low, wooden table covered by a heavy blanket, with a heat source placed under the table, similar to a Spanish brasero. Offering kotatsu tables (or a DIY variation on the theme) can keep keep diners warm while they enjoy their meals.

4. Outdoor fireplaces and fire pits

Long a feature in suburban and rural environments, fire pits and outdoor fireplaces are having even more of a moment than they usually do in the winter months (and are getting brought to an increasing number of urban restaurants). Although classic s'mores are great, many spaces are expanding fireside menu offerings to more holistic dining options, as dining outdoors transitions from a fun novelty to a way of life.

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5. Curtains and blankets

These solutions are low-tech, to be sure, but they've stood the test of time. Some restaurants are choosing to hang heavy fabric curtains, which do a great job trapping heat but naturally have to be brought inside during rainstorms, while others are opting for plastic curtains, which are considerably less elegant but more weather-resistant. While many restaurants that have fire pits and outdoor fireplaces traditionally offer blankets to customers, given the current state of the pandemic, a BYO blanket approach is being increasingly used to prevent potentially spreading the virus, while some restaurants are offering diners low-cost blankets, which they can then take home. 

[Photo: Unsplash via Giulia Gasperini]

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