The Rush to Winterize Outdoor Dining
Bars and restaurants are coming up with creative ways to offer al fresco drinking and dining options even when the cold sets in.
Friends, we need to talk about the table sweater.
It’s essentially a blanket designed to drape over four people sitting around a square table. Each person slips their head through a head hole and their arms though sewn-in sleeves. The fabric extends down to the ground; affixed to the underside of the table is a small heater, ensuring toastiness during an outdoor meal.
Sadly, this invention is not called the table sweater. It’s actually called the ComforTable. Also sadly, it doesn’t actually exist yet, at least not in the wild. It was Yuki Takeshima’s submission to Chicago’s Winter Design Challenge, which recently invited designers and outdoor enthusiasts to propose ideas to make cold-weather dining something enjoyed by city residents, not just by insufferable cross-country skiers in barren woods with their Opinel No. 8 French cheese knives. Three finalists, who will be announced in early October, will each be awarded $5,000 to bring their idea to life.
A total of 643 proposals were submitted. Some were, well, conceptual (affix small radiators to large rats and let them roam). But the vast majority had some weight behind them. Several variations on the table sweater were submitted, although most hewed closer to the traditional (and sleeveless) kotatsu, a traditional Japanese set-up involving a low table, a blanket and a heat source. (Originally created for drafty Japanese homes, diners in kimonos found the heat rose up chimney-like and warmed them throughout a meal.)
Welcome to drinking and dining in winter 2020/2021. Remember going to that cozy pub to escape the flensing winds during the January blizzard of 2018? Yeah, that’s not happening this year. Think lodges and après ski and snow bunnies. Hygge is out. Hypothermia is in. Your winter drinking Spotify playlist consists of one track: the gentle but persistent roar of a nearby propane heater.
Since spring, bars and restaurants have moved from interior spaces to outdoor ones, driven by consumer preference, government entreaties (“Prioritize outdoor seating as much as possible,” urged the CDC), and science—a non-peer-reviewed study in Japan last April found that transmission of COVID-19 in a closed room was 18.7 times higher than in the open air.
Patios at restaurants and bars suddenly went from being the backyard to the front yard. Cities expedited permits for new sidewalk seating and outdoor drinking, reallocated curbside parking spots from cars to restaurants for outdoor tables, and—in some cases—closed streets for dining, creating vibrant pop-up scenes.
But that was summer. Most of us hoped and thought that the virus would have been given the bum’s rush by the time the first flakes flew. This is now seen as wishful thinking.
As leaves turn and temperatures drop, many cities have moved to allow drinkers and diners to linger in their new outdoor corrals. Last month New York extended its Open Restaurants program indefinitely, allowing the more than 10,000 participating establishments to stay outdoors. The city also approved the use of propane patio heaters at commercial establishments—formerly these were for home use only.
Toronto will also allow street side tables and gas heaters, at least through November, depending on the weather. And in Portland, Maine, outdoor dining, which was originally permitted only until the end of October, is considering a request by restaurateurs and bar owners to push that back to Dec. 31.
While cities have eliminated some of the legal obstacles to late-season outdoor dining, two chief barriers remain: the first is material, or how guests can avoid frostbite when temperatures plunge; the second is psychological, or how to convince consumers that dining outside in winter is fun, and totally not a punishment for poor life choices.
For comfort, propane heaters are certain to serve as the front line in the coming war on winter—both the tall mushroom-shaped silver dragons roaring away, and their quieter cousins, the radiant heating panels. This is assuming that proprietors can now actually source enough of them.
“Sales are through the roof, and we can’t keep up with inventory or manufacturing to satisfy demand,” says Karl Tschauner, director of sales in the U.S. for Bromic Heating, which makes upscale infrared heaters for home and commercial use. He says the company was surprised by a surge in orders from homeowners this past spring— after fixing up the interiors of their homes they converted their garages to social spaces and then moved on to the patios, often installing heaters. This fall, heater manufacturers were then caught off-guard by a wave of orders from commercial establishments looking to extend their season.
“For about the last month, they’ve been hard to get,” says Rett Rasmussen, president of Rasmussen Gas Logs and Grills in California, which distributes radiant heaters. “No one projected in March or April that we’d be locked down this long.” A sharp spike in orders hit in September, as northern restaurateurs scrambled to keep outdoor diners coming.
A check on Amazon for basic propane patio heaters suggests a more ready supply of basic heaters (Amazon is still promising delivery within a week for many models), although some fear the recent change in New York to allow heaters at commercial establishments may trigger a new shortage.
As for containing the portable heat and keeping it from drifting aimlessly upward, small pods have been popular for quick and practical solutions to keeping people relatively warm. Most are temporary and can be set up and dismantled quickly; add a small heater and you can boost the temperature enough that bundled guests can kick back on the cusp of comfort.
The Chicago design competition included dozens of submissions with variations on pods. Some were stylish and modernist, including one dubbed “Block Party,” which featured a series of bright, two-person modules that could be rolled over to other pods to create seating for four or six. When not in use, they can be compressed like mechanical book stacks seen at academic libraries.
But most were dome shaped and would have made industrial designer Buckminster Fuller proud; the term “snow globe” was a popular descriptor. One submission went all in, and called for the pod to be “decorated using winter themes to resemble snow globes with hanging snowflakes, cotton, glitter, and snowmen.” Others were more DIY, including one budget proposal that employed 25-square-foot greenhouses from Amazon ($215), equipped with inexpensive heaters.
The dome idea isn’t new. Places including Elm City Social in New Haven, Connecticut, have set up rooftop “igloos” in pre-COVID times, creating a ski lounge without slopes, “complete with flannel blankets, cozy throw pillows and menus printed to look like ski-lift passes.”
In fact, marketing the whole idea of outdoor bonhomie—making winter more of a celebration than a slog—appears key to getting customers to embrace a pleinair drinking program. Another submission to the Chicago competition called for creating a season-long festival called “Après Ski Chicago,” which was “designed to normalize outdoor dining in winter gear, channeling the ‘Après Ski’ mentality of enjoying food & good friends.”
Briana Volk, who with her husband, Andrew, owns the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club in Portland, Maine, appears prescient—their bar opened in 2013 with a Nordic outdoor adventure club theme. Unconvinced that it was safe to open indoors, this summer they built a stylish wooden patio parklet with slat walls across two parking spaces on the street in front of their bar. A shed roof is going in overhead for better weather protection, and they expect the delivery soon of four propane heaters. They’ve also partnered with a local linen shop to create branded blankets. “Every seat will have one—it’s the kind of thing you see in ski lodges,” Volk says. Just in case, they’re putting in ski racks along the sidewalk.
Volk is mystified that Portland hasn’t championed outdoor winter dining like other northern cities, such as Montreal, Quebec City, and along Church St. in Burlington, Vermont. “This is a great opportunity to do these things and implement these ideas that should have been going on for years,” she says.
But even Volk admits outdoor winter dining may soon hit outer limits. They hope to extend their season through the end of the year (if the city agrees), but by January city snow removal needs and sub-zero temperatures will require them to dismantle their patio, and shift to take-out for the rest of winter. They aim to reopen with outdoor seating next March or April.
Winter is coming, friends. A decade from now, we’ll no doubt grow wistful thinking back on this time, when streets were dotted with little snow globes, softly lit with twinkly lights, occupied by couples cuddling under woolen blanker as the snow swirls, little tableaux of life we once thought normal. I say embrace it.