Restaurants spend big on improved alfresco dining with faster service and elaborate winter decor

Restaurant owners say they are better prepared this winter for the mass of pandemic-weary diners who still want an al fresco option.

A year ago, restaurants rounded up makeshift tents, finicky propane heaters, and utilitarian patio furniture. Guests showed up, but even some who were hungry for a safe way to dine felt like they were paying too much for a poor experience.

With more time to make arrangements, owners are making expensive bets on what diners want when the temperatures drop. Some of them are using the money to speed up service, add decoration, and invest in better permanent facilities. Others tweak the menus to offer well-executed hot dishes and themed hot drinks.

The plans developed are a risk given all of the problems in the restaurant industry, from supply shortages to the ability to find workers. But the owners believe the creative setups will be enough to attract more diners out of their homes and a step up from a year ago.

The Fork restaurant in Philadelphia, presented in early 2021, used portable propane heaters to warm customers.


Photo:

Fork

“There’s more thinking in there,” says Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association.

Keeping diners shivering is a priority for Ellen Yin, co-owner of the High Street Hospitality Group in Philadelphia. Last year, Ms. Yin’s Fork’s restaurant went through more than 10 propane tanks a night to power the heat lamps that were shared between tables. The gas tanks had to be replaced throughout the evening. It was always a scramble.

“A few times I went to Home Depot in the middle of the shift,” she says.

In the fall, Ms. Yin invested in hanging infrared heaters and is looking to provide blankets that can be easily washed. The restaurant plans to serve a hot appetizer for outdoor guests, including cider, broth, or hot tea on chilly nights. Servers will also bring more items into newly purchased cast iron baking dishes, which stay hot longer.

Workers set up a covered dining room for Loulou in Manhattan on Tuesday.

“We want to help people feel warmer physically and psychologically,” she says.

Customers are eager to try out the outdoor facilities anytime of the year. More than 8 in 10 diners say they are in favor of permanently allowing restaurants to set up tables on sidewalks, parking lots or streets, according to 2021 data from the National Restaurant Association. But diners say they have their own take-out after a winter of al fresco dining.

With more choices this fall and winter, Patrick Kandawire, 40, says his expectations are higher as well.

For now, he plans to choose structures that are closed for the winter rather than patio seats that are often too close to cars and foot traffic. He’s also looking for winter-themed facilities and other items that make outdoor dining fun. “Just because you’re outside doesn’t mean you have to be sitting on a plastic chair,” says Kandawire, who is based in New York and works in finance.

Loulou Restaurant in New York City is building three outdoor dining platforms and structures to create a covered winter patio that tops the one the restaurant offered last winter. Following the destruction of the structure last year, owner Mathias Van Leyden reached out to city nightlife officials to make sure it meets outdoor dining guidelines and could use for several seasons.

As a result, Van Leyden worked with the builder to add removable wheels that allow better quality structures to be stored rather than destroyed when snowplows need to clear the streets. To put customers at ease, the cabins use furnishings and decor that match the interior of the restaurant. Newly added exterior locks keep the most elaborate setups intact overnight.

“We put people to sleep there,” says Van Leyden, who adds that the outdoor space doubles the number of seats.

Customers are looking for outdoor facilities that continue the restaurant’s theme, says Andrea Pedrazzoli, co-owner of A Pasta Bar in New York City. This year, diners will enter a row of green wooden enclosures adorned with faux yellow and white flowers. The Italian restaurant hopes to evoke summer feelings in Capri. Once at the table, guests hear a playlist of house music. The interior walls are painted by a local artist.

“Our overall experience has now evolved,” he says. “It transports customers to Europe.

Café-Flor’s Tuesday outdoor dining space in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.

Not all establishments think this is worth a massive and permanent investment.

Rising food costs, a shortage of catering staff, and spaces that have only been temporarily approved for outdoor service can make the investment in outdoor space seem like a leap, says Mark. Domitrovich, founder of the Pioneer Tavern Group in Chicago.

This year, Mr. Domitrovich will be offering heated tents in an outdoor area adjacent to Lottie’s, a neighborhood bar and grill. While the restaurant set up the tents last year, they add to the decor. This month’s Camp of Horrors theme will turn into a winter wonderland later in the year.

For now, he’s sticking to the canvas rather than setting up more permanent structures. “We stay pat with what we have,” he says.

Dine at the outdoor space of the Vault Steakhouse, now called Vault Garden, in San Francisco in July.


Photo:

Hardy wilson

Other restaurateurs focus on improving service when it comes to al fresco dining.

At Hearth & Hill, an upscale restaurant in Park City, Utah, staff will now have uniforms to stay warm and spend more time outside on the heated patio to be visible to customers. New electronic tablets are sending orders back to the kitchen to speed up the plates. Something else that has caught on: selling branded knit hats for diners with cold ears.

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“We want them to be comfortable,” says co-owner Brooks Kirchheimer.

Even in warmer climates, restaurants are rethinking their offerings. At San Francisco’s Vault Steakhouse, an outdoor space now called the Vault Garden is reserved for large corporate groups concerned about social distancing. This year, they invested in two outdoor bars and lounge furniture in addition to the smaller tables from last year.

In September, Vault Garden hosted a French Fries Tasting featuring 40 different kinds, including waffles and laces, to see what comes out of their kitchen the best. They opted for a 3/8 inch fry that offers a crispier bite, says Ryan Cole, partner of Hi Neighbor Hospitality Group, who owns the restaurant.

Any dishes that require gravy or soup should be poured out to avoid a soggy appearance. “The question is, what will it be like when he gets there?” he says.

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