The Future of Dining Is Alfresco

As restaurants slowly reopen—and get creative to lure diners back—one thing is certain: We’ll be eating outside a lot more.

The Future of Dining Is Alfresco

As the city of Copenhagen emerged from lockdown, Noma reopened (at least temporarily) as an outdoor wine and burger bar.

Photo by Ditte Isager

This is a developing story. For up-to-date information on traveling during the coronavirus outbreak, visit the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

Noma in Copenhagen, known for its 20-course meals and world’s best accolades, has reopened during the COVID-19 pandemic as an outdoor wine and burger bar. (And oh, what beautiful burgers they are.) A Maryland seafood restaurant has asked patrons to wear inner tubes—on dry land—while drinking. A German brasserie set up two-tops on the sidewalk—inside miniature greenhouses, one for each table.

Around the world, but especially in the United States—in major cities like Washington, D.C., Paris, and Madrid—restaurants have been permitted to reopen, but only if they can provide outdoor seating. (Paris, for example, reopened its famous cafés on Tuesday.)

But what about restaurants without a rooftop deck or patio? Thrillingly, we’re seeing a push in major metro areas to close down streets to provide more outdoor seating—some cities are going as far as turning over nearly all public plazas and parks to our hungry, under-socialized selves. How long will it last? As with anything related to COVID-19, permissions and restrictions vary city by city. Here’s what we know about our alfresco future.

We’re lucky it’s summer in the U.S.

Picture this: You’re in Chicago. (We’ll skip over the whole how-you-got-there part for now.) It’s a sunny day, late in the afternoon. You’re hungry, but because the city is still in Phase 3 of its reopening plan—which means outdoor seating only—you’re not exactly sure where to eat. You decide to head for the West Loop, one of Chicago’s foodiest centers. Once you arrive, you see a street that was once filled with cars filled instead with tables, all spaced six feet apart.

This brilliant, perfect-for-summer move is part of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s pilot program, Our Streets, which will temporarily close six of the city’s most popular restaurant corridors to cars. The hours haven’t yet been set, said Sam Toia, president and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association, in an email: “In some neighborhoods, it could be Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for dinner only. In other areas with coffee shops, breakfast, and lunch places, there could be mid-day closings that extend through the week.”

Unsurprisingly, given its liberal nature and beautiful streets, Berkeley, California, may soon follow suit. Mayor Jesse Arreguín recently introduced legislation that would close city streets during restaurant operating hours. (San Francisco has a similar plan in the works and one has been approved in San Jose.) If Chicago’s Our Streets program is successful, Mayor Lightfoot plans to replicate it elsewhere in the city. Cities and towns in multiple states—including Oregon, New Jersey, Ohio, and Florida—are joining the movement, with more cities pushing for legislation to allow it.

Many European countries already follow this model, but we’re seeing an expansion of open-air spaces. The Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, for example, has pledged to turn over much of its public space to struggling bars and restaurants. Since the announcement, the city’s central Cathedral Square has transformed into a dining plaza and restaurants have spilled into the streets and set up café tables in nearby parks and parking lots.

Is Noma's new burger focus a signal of what's to come for fine dining?

Is Noma’s new burger focus a signal of what’s to come for fine dining?

Photo by Ditte Isager

Why outdoors?

Consider the alternative: In New York City, where sky-high rents mean every square inch matters, restaurantgoers would be packed into, say, say 400 square feet—the very type of environment we’re all trying to avoid. As of June 22, the city will (hopefully) join the outdoor dining movement.

The CDC still considers any on-site dining a higher-risk activity, but experts agree that the risk of transmission is much lower outdoors than it would be in a public indoor space—and that sunlight can shorten the lifespan of the virus. While experts are still researching potential links between air-conditioning and virus transmission, it remains safer to eat, say, on a rooftop or a patio, or even in the street than in an air-conditioned restaurant. (If you do find yourself in an air-conditioned space, take the standard precautions: Wear a mask, maintain distance from others, and wash your hands frequently.)

Another reason we’re likely to see a rise in outdoor seating? Because that’s what diners feel most comfortable with, according to a recent Zagat “Future of Dining Study,” which found that “three-quarters of people polled said outdoor seating would make them more likely to visit.”

Of course, many restaurants don’t have access to outdoor spaces, which is why we’re seeing a rise in cities turning public spaces over to restaurants and bars, as well as closing streets to allow restaurants to serve patrons outdoors.

Amsterdam’s Mediamatic ETEN restaurant tested serving dinner to friends and family in tiny greenhouses to maintain social-distancing measures.

Amsterdam’s Mediamatic ETEN restaurant tested serving dinner to friends and family in tiny greenhouses to maintain social-distancing measures.

Photo by Willem Velthoven for Mediamatic Amsterdam

What kind of social-distancing practices can I expect?

The new normal might look like this:

  • No walk-ins: Many restaurants, including those in Minnesota, will only seat diners with reservations.
  • Prepare to be questioned! Restaurants may ask customers screening questions (“have you been sick; has anyone in your family been sick”) before they enter.
  • . . . And also temp-checked: In some states, such as Tennessee, temperature checks are recommended, though it’s unclear if that will be a widespread practice at this time.
  • No mask, no service: Most restaurants will expect customers to wear a mask unless they’re eating or drinking.
  • LOTS of social distancing: Tables will be spread six feet apart or there will be physical barriers—such as plexiglass walls—separating tables, per the new CDC guidelines for restaurants. You might see one-way lanes, like the ones used in grocery stores.
  • No late nights: You might encounter curfews, as in Portland, Oregon, where restaurants are expected to reopen June 12th with a 10 p.m. cutoff.
  • Stricter loos: And then there’s the question of the bathroom. They’ll likely be available, but with diminished capacity, enhanced sanitation, and as many touchless devices as possible.

But it’s not all serious and somewhat horrifying! Some restaurants are finding creative and downright goofy ways to keep diners apart. There’s that restaurant in Maryland, which purchased “bumper tables”—essentially innertubes that keep people six feet apart. In Amsterdam, a restaurant built tiny greenhouses to shelter diners. And of course, there’s the now-infamous German café that asked customers to wear pool noodles to maintain social distance.

Is in-restaurant dining allowed?

It varies from state to state. In Denver and Louisiana, restaurants are allowed to serve diners indoors and at 50 percent capacity. (New Orleans is following a stricter reopening plan, with only 25 percent of seating allowed.) In San Francisco, in-restaurant dining is expected to resume July 13th at limited capacity.

Globally, there are similar patterns at work: London is eyeing a July 4 reopening date for restaurants and pubs, while Rome allowed eateries to reopen in late May with at least three feet between each table. As with anything related to COVID-19, check with your local restaurants and country officials before venturing out.

Seven Reasons is among the many D.C. restaurants that opened recently with outdoor-only dining.

Seven Reasons is among the many D.C. restaurants that opened recently with outdoor-only dining.

Photo courtesy of Seven Reasons

What about the restaurant staff? Is it safe to eat food prepared by others?

Yes! Here’s the official line: “There is no evidence to suggest that food produced in the United States can transmit COVID-19,” according to the FDA. But restaurants are going to incredible lengths to reassure diners that eating out is as safe as eating at home.

Take, for example, Seven Reasons, a D.C.-based Latin American restaurant that recently opened its Summer Garden to diners. As part of that reopening, it shared an exhaustive dining and sanitation plan. Cooks and waitstaff will wear gloves and masks at all times. Employees will undergo temperature checks every day and must wash their hands and change gloves every 30 minutes (and log it each time!). Tables, and everything on them, will be sanitized after each guest. Tables will come equipped with personal bottles of hand sanitizer, as well as a QR code to provide diners with a contactless menu.

“We are . . . extremely conscious of the great responsibility we have ahead,” chef Enrique Limardo said in an email to diners about the intense precautions. As extreme as they sound, you can expect them to become de rigueur as the world tiptoes back to some version of normal.

The restaurant’s changes echo the new CDC guidelines, which include wearing masks and (somewhat unfortunately, from an environmental perspective) encourage single-use items, including silverware, menus, and condiments. Many restaurants will require temperature checks as part of a daily screening for staff. All restaurants will have enhanced sanitation plans in place; like Seven Reasons, many are broadcasting those plans online to alleviate diner concerns.

How will this change the kind of food that’s offered?

Time will tell. Not all food travels well under a cover, said Texas Monthly taco editor Jose Ralat in a recent interview with AFAR. It certainly seems that casual food will be on the rise, if Noma’s temporary pivot into a cheeseburger stand signals anything. Take-out windows, meal kits, built-in markets, and curbside pickup are likely here to stay.

There’s been much chatter about the loss of fine dining, as Michelin-starred restaurants turned to delivery to survive the crisis. Will it ever return? It depends on who you talk to—and it may be too soon to tell. “People are going to change their business models,” Manresa chef David Kinch told Robb Report recently. “And most importantly of all, people’s mindsets will change about what’s truly important.”

Many restaurants, especially smaller ones without room to cut tables and remain profitable, are likely to stick with takeout.

This all sounds great for the summer, but what’s going to happen when the weather cools?

That remains unclear for now, although many cities are planning for outdoor dining to be the first step toward a fuller reopening later in the fall. Sam Toia of the Illinois Restaurant Association said in an email: “We are taking it day by day. We hope to keep flattening the curve to get Chicago to Phase 4 and allow for a safe, measured reopening of indoor dining.”

Many experts believe that the summer will offer cities and restaurants the opportunity to test and explore new ways of social distancing. All signs point to restaurants continuing to operate at diminished capacity once outdoor dining is no longer possible—many others are looking to cities like Hong Kong for ideas of how to reconfigure restaurants to protect diners.

What about bars?

Given their intimate nature, bars face unique challenges. They’re typically more packed—the whole point of an actual bar is to allow people to socialize in close proximity over the beverage of their choice. Those with access to patios and other outdoor spaces will have an advantage; those without them will get creative.

The Rum Club in Portland, Oregon, will remove bar stools to create distance between patrons. (Which makes you wonder about the future of socializing over booze, doesn’t it?) A cheerleader-themed Tokyo bar is among the many using mannequins to separate diners. (Theirs, of course, will be dressed as cheerleaders.)

I’ll end with a personal note: It’s easy to get bogged down in all the precautions—and the creepy inventions, like dining-friendly face masks—and wonder why bother? Here’s what I’m telling myself: If I’m healthy, and employed, and not caring for an elderly or ailing family member, it’s my civic duty to get out into the community and support the restaurant industry as much as possible. Independent restaurants form the fabric of our community. They preserve diversity and entrepreneurship. They connect us to faraway places. Which is why I’ll be among the first to pop on my mask, pick up a (well-sanitized) fork, and do my part.

>>Next: Want to Support Your Favorite American Restaurant? Here’s How.

Aislyn Greene is the associate director of podacsts at AFAR, where she produces the Unpacked by AFAR podcast and hosts AFAR’s Travel Tales podcast. She lives on a houseboat in Sausalito.
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