This week, OpenTable celebrated the 100 Best Al Fresco Restaurants in America and the 100 Best Restaurants for Outdoor Dining in Canada. Offering diners the option to eat outside is great for business, but it’s not always sunshine and rainbows. There are numerous challenges of operating a weather-dependent space when it rains — for or a week or even a day — or if it’s brutally hot outside. Restaurateurs with al fresco areas check the weather forecast as often as meteorologists — or, even more so. Here, expert restaurateurs weigh in on the challenges of outdoor dining.
New England is one of the most unpredictable weather regions in the country. In fact, the running joke there is, “If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute.” New Englanders typically put up with a bone-chilling winter and crave al fresco dining when the warm weather hits (and by warm, we mean 40 degrees in May).
Patrick Lee, owner of Grafton Group Hospitality is the king of patio dining. He manages six outdoor patios at his restaurants, including five in Cambridge, Massachusetts, (Grafton Street, Temple Bar, Russell House Tavern, PARK Restaurant & Bar, The Hourly Oyster House) and State Street Provisions in Boston. Each restaurant has its own personality and serves “sophisticated, yet approachable” New American food and craft cocktails — with a side of warm patio sunshine.
Lee operates with a glass-half-full attitude. “At Grafton Group, we choose to look at weather optimistically; an overcast and stormy day can quickly turn into a mild pleasant evening,” says Lee. “Our guests love to dine al fresco, so we are very aggressive in keeping our patios available, and we are quick to re-open them when weather permits. When possible, we give our guests overhead shelter on our patios so when inclement weather occurs, it gives the service team time to move guests to alternate indoor tables.”
The type of shelter each restaurant can offer depends on the patio setup, says Lee. “At certain locations, we use umbrellas, and in others, we have additional shelter thanks to the structure of the surrounding buildings.” For example, the neighboring buildings at Russell House Tavern “happen to be angled in a way that creates a natural covering over the patio,” says Lee. Each of his restaurant’s patios are also equipped with heaters, “which are a great help and very beneficial to us, especially in shoulder seasons.”
Guests tend to eat a bit lighter on the patios, says Lee, “so we end up serving more salads and lighter wine. We also see that guests on the patios have quicker turn times, so they generally like to eat light and then continue on with their day.” Before it begins to snow again in a few months.
On the left coast, this Los Angeles restaurant, housed in a decades-old bungalow, has a breezy indoor/outdoor vibe and a casual “lazy French” menu as well as a natural wine program. A wrap-around patio is sheltered by trees and hedges, and an “eclectic soundtrack of old, vinyl records,” also help to cancel noise from busy Virgil Avenue beyond the hedges.
And while the temperatures aren’t nearly as extreme as in New England, the biggest challenges of running a patio at this Cali spot is also “the weather”, says Paloma Rabinov, co-owner and general manager.
“We provide blankets and heaters during the colder weather and umbrellas and shade sails for sun protection,” says Rabinov. “When it rains, we move all furniture from the patio into storage.”
Popular patio dishes include mussels, brandade dip, and a chicken sandwich, which, Rabinov says, “always sell no matter where a customer sits.”
This contemporary Italian trattoria in Charlotte, North Carolina, has dealt with snowstorms, windstorms, and even a pesky resident who lives above the restaurant and when smoking drops ashes onto Vivace’s patio, resulting in holes in the patio umbrellas.
“The biggest challenge of running our patio is predicting the weather and how guests will respond to it,” says general manager Josh Grogan. “We constantly follow several live weather apps and try to make the best call we can.”
Vivace has heaters and fans on the upstairs covered patio but not downstairs on the larger patio, says Grogan.
And, of course, fickle weather makes staffing a challenge. “It really all depends on reservations and our expectations for the shift,” says Grogan. “Rarely do we advise people not to come to work but if the weather is unexpectedly impacting business, we will sometimes cut shifts short.”
A big seller in the summer is the strawberry mojito, says Grogan, adding, “Food-wise, we see an increase in sales for pizzas and meat and cheese boards, and other fare that is light and easy to share.”
Summer in New York City means patio season. It’s a favorite see-and-be-seen experience — sipping a glass of rosé and watching scenes of Manhattan pass by. Del Frisco’s Grille Brookfield Place also has One World Trade as the backdrop for its seasonal 68-seat patio.
Here, too, weather is always a factor, says general manager Sherwin Levitis. “Is it going to rain, will it stop, when will we be able to reopen? Sometimes the guests order food and then it starts raining. What do we do then?”
“We generally look a week out to gauge weather and then a few days out to solidify — we always have on-call shifts ready for the week, in case things clear up,” says Levitis. “If it starts raining and we can move a server, so they can have a new station inside, we definitely will.”
Levitis says the restaurant deals with inclement weather “on a case-by-case basis, depending on how busy we are inside and if we have space. We are always looking for different ways to ensure the guest is taken care of; it just becomes difficult at a certain point as we cannot control the weather.”
The restaurant does use patio heaters during the colder weather months “but they are only available at our tables that have a canopy. Typically, everyone always wants to sit there anyway so it ends up working perfectly.”
Popular al fresco menu items are entrée salads, such as the kale and Brussels sprouts salad and the steakhouse salad. “We tend to also see an uptick in rosé-by-the-glass sales,” says Levitis. Another big seller is the Grille’s signature VIP Martini — vodka infused with pineapple for 14 days and then hand-squeezed through a cheesecloth and shaken over ice. “A refreshing option during the dog days of a New York City summer,” says Levitis.
The Irish are no strangers to moody weather, and the outdoor patio at Celtic Crossing in Memphis, Tennessee, is the place in town to raise a pint of Guinness or to enjoy a flight of rare Irish whiskey, as well as corned beef sliders and shepherd’s pie. The space features covered and uncovered outside seating — year-round.
“During the winter months, sides come down and heaters are turned on to ensure everyone is warm and toasty,” says a restaurant spokesman. In warmer months, “Misters also gently spray cold water around the uncovered side of the patio to keep guests cool.” As well as that cold pint.
Photo credits: James Ringrose (top); Connie Miller (second image). All images courtesy of featured restaurants.