It’s a chilling thought for restaurateurs: Winter is upon us, and patio dining will soon end. Last weekend’s snowfall offered a bleak foreshadowing of next season, with chairs overturned and tables piled high with slush. As of now, outdoor seating is set to conclude in Boston on Dec. 1, though this could be extended. In preparation, restaurant owners are investing in cold-weather contraptions such as gondolas, igloos, and even greenhouses to keep al fresco dining viable.
How viable is the question. Last year, Cambridge’s Sage Carbone enjoyed a pre-pandemic evening at an igloo set up at Seaport’s Envoy Hotel. Back then, they were mere novelties, not necessities. Her experience is a cautionary tale.
“We were trying to get a photo of all of us facing the same way, and they had space heaters plugged in on the floor [of the igloo]. They got knocked over twice. We heard a big zap. Thankfully, nothing caught on fire, and everyone was OK,” she says, chuckling. “We got a talking-to from the waiter.”
Carbone says she’d be reluctant to return to an igloo now, though, and would rather dine indoors.
“I wouldn’t [do it], based on the air circulation and the ability to clean on the inside. I work with kids. I know how disgusting tents can be,” she says.
Public health experts are also leery of domed dining for other reasons.
“In general, it’s best to avoid sharing indoor-esque air with anyone beyond your household while dining. Period. No hacks to be had,” says Lindsey Leininger, a health policy researcher and clinical professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. She’s the co-creator of Dear Pandemic, a popular website that addresses common questions about COVID-19.
The concern is less about a pod dining together in a domed structure and more about servers and other staff from outside the household coming and going.
“I’ll be doing a lot of takeout this winter from my favorite restaurants, leaving big tips,” she says.
There are creative solutions. In Cambridge, Talulla restaurant has set up several two-person Palram greenhouses, where servers present food through a window. Co-owner Danielle Ayer snapped them up on Amazon, inspired by dining structures she saw in Copenhagen, Denmark, outfitted with space heaters. They cost $473.
“They’ve paid for themselves,” Ayer says. “It’s small enough to retain heat and facilitate all service from outside the structure for safety.”
At the Kennebunkport Inn in Kennebunkport, Maine, up to six guests can relax inside heated gondolas flanked by Christmas trees, firepits, and a curling area, making a surreal scenario seem downright festive.
“You feel like you’re in a Swiss winter village,” says managing director Justin Grimes. The hotel used them last year, too, but now employees have to worry about painstakingly disinfecting the gondola in between service; Grimes says his staff was trained to use time-efficient, potent electrostatic spray guns after each guest. Supervisors usually clean the gondolas.
“This has forced us to get our knowledge up in ways we never thought we would,” Grimes says. “The COVID piece is such a different world for us just because of how potent the chemicals need to be, and kill time becomes very important. The technology is really expensive.”
That’s just it: COVID-19 has turned restaurant workers into engineers, electricians, and amateur chemists.
“You see the mist spraying. If the light hits it right, you see it move through the air,” he says, talking about chemicals, not cocktails.
In the South End, Aquitaine Group operations director Christopher Glionna has invested in 10-by-10 bubble tents. The space-age orbs fit up to six people and look like set pieces from “The Jetsons.”
“The problem in the city is I can’t leave them up. There are vandals and people sleeping in them,” he says. This version, from tent company Alvantor, are collapsible. At under $500 apiece, he thinks they’re a worthwhile investment. He just hopes they don’t blow away. He plans to weight them down with pails of concrete.
“We have to try something,” he says. “And people seem willing to brave the elements to sit outside.”
At Lexington’s Inn at Hastings Park, owner Trisha Pérez Kennealy is embracing the frost with a Nordic feel, too. She has ordered several igloos but is also offering guests pashminas, ordered in bulk on Amazon, as well as blankets from L.L. Bean, washed in between guests. Her outdoor garden is also outfitted with heaters and fire pits. The menu will match, with hot dishes like macaroni gratin to create necessary ambiance.
“There are a lot of places in the world where people spend a lot of time outside in the winter. If you ski in the Alps, people eat lunch outside,” she says, noting that dining al fresco isn’t that different from tailgating during a Patriots game (and quicker, too).
At Somerville’s Assembly Row, first-come, first-serve igloos are set up in common areas and cleaned with electrostatic foggers after each group leaves. This requires an eagle-eyed cleaning staff, though.
“We have janitorial staff on-site 18 hours a day, and a dedicated person who makes sure each of the igloos are cleaned in a COVID-safe manner,” says general manager Dave Middleton. Sue Olson runs MidiCi Wood-Fired Italian at Assembly Row and has invested in her own igloos to supplement the public ones, which have been popular.
She’s waiting on supplies from Gardenigloo USA, a company that’s enjoying new appeal as an outdoor igloo purveyor. (Who knew?) At $1,449 apiece, they offer an “aesthetic approach to social distancing,” according to their marketing materials; hers are currently on backorder but should arrive in two weeks.
“It’s something unique. I think that’s what it’s going to take to get people out and about this winter,” she says.