Cold, rain, wind — late fall and winter can bring anything. What does it mean for the still-essential outdoor dining options that restaurants have relied on since June?
An Inquirer survey of 1,115 people found that nearly 80% of respondents were not comfortable with indoor dining, while more than 90% were comfortable with outdoor dining. A preponderance of respondents said that heaters, fire pits, and warm drinks would encourage them to keep up outdoor dining, even in colder months.
But the comment section of the mid-September survey revealed some major caveats: “Wind!! Cold with wind is a deal breaker,” wrote one. “Not going to do it if it is wet weather,” added another.
Others piled on. “Strong winds would deter me.” “Cold is 1 thing and when you add wind it’s not a great combination!” “High Winds and/or a blizzard.” “Rain, bitter cold.” “Rain. Don’t mind cold. Don’t like wet.” (Local COVID case rates were another wild card many respondents cited.)
Is there anything to be done about wind and rain when it comes to outdoor dining? A few local restaurants are testing the premise with design innovations.
Located at the base of a Center City office tower, Harper’s Garden has straddled the indoor-outdoor divide since it opened in 2018. Each year, the trellis area on its front patio has been winterized with plastic-glass panels and a polycarbonate roof so the restaurant can maintain the seating area.
There’s a new addition to the cold-weather plan this year: The patio will be dotted with nine miniature greenhouses that can shield customers from wind and rain.
The polycarbonate-plastic greenhouses are tall enough for most people to stand inside — the center peaks at eight and a half feet — and roomy enough to seat seven people or more. (The city limit caps outdoor dining tables to parties of six.) The Harper’s crew outfitted each house with its own heating system, which operates by warming outside air and blowing it in, rather than recirculating hot air.
“It’ll be 100% heated fresh air coming in,” said Avram Hornik, who owns Harper’s Garden and its parent company, FCM Hospitality. In case customers get too warm, the greenhouses also have roof openings to let in fresh air. Hornik said he had not done the math on the total cost of the houses, which were acquired at a greenhouse supply company, but similar models found online cost upward of $500 each.
The greenhouses and surfaces inside will be sanitized between seatings and are intended for one family or coronavirus pod at a time, Hornik said. They debuted this month and will remain on the patio until next spring. Guests will be able to reserve them specifically on the restaurant’s website.
“It should be fun,” Hornik said. “Hopefully, if it snows, you’ll still be able to be in your little greenhouse space and have the snow around you and be warm and be with your friends and family and enjoying being in the city.”
The scene at Northern Liberties’ Vesper Dayclub has been considerably tamed by the pandemic. No longer is the once-members-only pool club characterized by cabanas and Insta-fueled antics.
“We’ve switched more toward restaurants, not so much nightlife,” said Derek Gibbons, managing partner at Glu Hospitality, which also runs Vesper and Leda & the Swan in Center City, as well as Germantown Gardens and the recently opened Añejo and SET NoLibs.
This summer the Glu team replaced Vesper Dayclub’s day beds and dance floor with private canopies and table tops, recasting the 10,000-square-foot space as Germantown Garden Grill. They recently added 12 “igloos,” transparent tents that zip up around diners.
The igloos, warmed by electric heaters, will allow the Garden Grill to stay open year-round. Two zippered entryways let servers pass through food and drinks. Ten-by-ten-feet tents contain four-tops, while the 15-by-15 tents comfortably fit tables for six and have enough extra room for a standing area.
Waterproof, wind-resistant, and anchored by sandbags, the soft-plastic igloos will be sanitized with a spray that Garden Grill employees apply via a backpack-style mister.
“Believe it or not, we actually bought a couple [of these] last year,” said Gibbons, who added that the club had bought the tents on Amazon for between $300 and $600, depending on the size. “We wanted to do something like this, but at the time we didn’t really have great dining exposure.”
The igloos can be reserved on OpenTable.
When Parx Casino opened its Liberty Bell Beer Garden in 2019, it wanted to fill a need: The Bensalem casino identified a shortage of beer gardens in Bucks County and the neighboring Northeast. But it also didn’t want a strictly seasonal venue.
So the people at Parx built a $1.5 million adaptable beer garden, covered by a retractable roof and glassed in with doors that fold neatly together. Those features have come in handy during the pandemic, according to Marc Oppenheimer, Parx’s chief marketing officer.
“There have been one or two times where it looked like a nice day and then, out of nowhere, some rain started. [The staff has] had to real quickly close the roof panels and tried to do it without too many people getting wet,” he said.
The roof takes about 15 to 20 minutes to retract and can be fully or partially opened. The doors, which line two sides of the glassy room, open manually and lead out to patios that surround the atrium. Two cylindrical HVAC ducts span the length of the room, which is accessed through the casino’s sportsbook.
While not as accommodating to individual groups as Harper’s Garden or Germantown Garden Grill’s adaptations, the beer garden’s design is especially conducive to outside airflow. “There are times, especially if it’s a windy day out, where the airflow through the room is so strong that it’s actually hard to open the doors to get into the room,” Oppenheimer noted.
When outdoor dining first came back in June, the state’s health department ruled that the roof and the doors were enough to designate the beer garden an outdoor dining area. But will it remain one as the weather changes?
“We will likely, at a minimum, keep the side doors open longer into the season than we normally would have,” Oppenheimer said. The patio — which has a couple firepits and also gets some warmth from the heated air radiating from the inside — will also remain in play longer than it would have.
“We’re also hoping that, even when we sort of say, ‘OK, the weather’s not great, it’s gotten cool,’ that if there is a party that says, ‘Yeah, I know it’s 40 degrees outside, but I’d still rather sit outside,’ that we will let them.”