Embracing Winter: Outdoor Dining

Start thinking about outside winter coffee shops, craft markets, food trucks, etc. Charlotte street has a number of tucked-in alleyways that larger cities would have some artisan or crafter in for part of the day. Plug in a little heater, burn a log, it can be done and will work. People did it this past summer. Adapt for winter. Paul MacDougall, Part I


You’re probably starting to feel like I’ve brought you here under false pretenses — after all, I began Part II of this series talking about eating and drinking outside and ended up talking about layering up for Antarctica. But I think dining al fresco in winter has to qualify as “embracing” the season, and so I want to take a look at how it’s being facilitated in other cold places.

Luckily for me, one cold city — Chicago — sponsored a “Winter Dining Challenge,” asking community members to “reimagine the winter outdoor dining experience in Chicago.” Organizers received over 600 submissions, meaning, the good citizens of Chicago have done my work for me, considering outdoor winter dining from pretty much every angle you can think of — and a few that would probably never have occured to you. I’ll show you the winners in a moment, but first, some of the unsuccessful proposals:


Dining Villas

One entry proposed using 7’X4′ storage sheds with UV air purifiers to “create dining villas that can easily be heated for outdoor dining during the winter.” The applicant advised adding “fake grass” to “add to the ambiance.”

Plastic storage shed


Safety first

Another proposal, titled “The Safest Plan,” suggested Chicago:

Pay everyone to stay home and cancel rent/mortgages so businesses/people don’t have to endanger their employees/themselves to stay afloat.

Under “feasibility,” the applicant wrote:

Listen, we have an insanely bloated city police budget, take the money from there. Think of what mere slivers of that budget (millions of dollars a day!) could do for public health if we just gave it to people so they could stay home and not get each other sick!

The entry was illustrated with a Business Insider headline:

Business Insider headline re: German UBI


Chicago Pockets

In what may be the most barebones proposal, the applicant suggested a “low-tech” solution to the problem of diners with cold, ungloved hands:

…restaurants will offer hot baked potatoes for guests to keep in their coat pockets as hand warmers.

The solution overview notes:

Depending on the size of the potato, baked potatoes can provide approximately 40 minutes of warmth in a coat pocket. At the end of the meal, restaurants can provide a small container of sauce to take home to eat with the potato.

Cartoon potato

The 2020/ 1Chicago proposal calls on patrons to buy their own $10 blanket, divided into 20, 12-inch squares “that loosely represent our beloved Chicago neighborhoods.” When you eat (outdoors) at a restaurant, you are given an iron-on patch to apply to the appropriate section of the blanket.

2020/1Chicago blanket


Rats with radiators

Niki Hughes’ proposal is to “put radiators on rats.”

Rat with radiator

In the “User Research” section of the proposal, Hughes wrote:

It doesn’t take a peer reviewed study to know that Rats with Radiators is a spectacular idea.


And the winners are…

In the end, the judges chose three options, none of which, sadly, involved potatoes or rodents:


Cozy Cabins

Modeled on ice-fishing cabins, these are dining modules designed to fit “into the footprint of a parking space.” The individual cabins:

…rely on radiant floor heat for warmth, and can be replicated to fit multiple spaces. They are built of standard materials that can be set up for easy prototyping and replicating. The transparent windows make diners feel part of the community while safely social distancing from other diner

Cozy Cabins


Heated Tables

This entry is a modified version of the “kotatsu” or heated table found in “almost every” Japanese household:

A kotatsu typically consists of an electric heater attached to the under-side of a table. A blanket is draped over the frame and another flat surface placed on top. The double table top protects the blanket from catching fire. There are specific heaters designed to heat the table and these have grills which protect from burns. The level of heat can be adjusted to suit the user.


Block Party

Intended to occupy a parking lane, pocket park or extended sidewalk, these are heated, block modules that seat two people, but can be combined to seat larger parties. The proposal includes a detailed description of the design including the heat source and the construction materials, noting that:

Each of the seating modules is not fully enclosed to allow for some air circulation but can also be equipped with a curtain to maintain the heating provided and allow for a warm comfortable dining experience even in lower temperatures or precipitations days.



You’ll note that only one of the three winning proposals is a completely enclosed dining space. That’s a good thing, according to the guidelines for outdoor dining I discovered in the Seattle Times, which asked two public health experts — Marissa Baker and Gabriel Spitzer — about optimal outdoor dining spaces in a pandemic:

Outdoor structures should be open on at least two sides: If you’re dining outdoors all warm and cozy in Seattle right now, that’s no good. Public Health’s Spitzer explains, “We know the virus can build up in the air of poorly ventilated spaces … an enclosed space that happens to be outdoors should also be open enough to allow free airflow.” Three-sided structures are allowed, he says, “only if they include an opening large enough to ensure cross ventilation.” Baker, however, is not comfortable with this latter COVID-19 judgment call. “More than two sides,” she says, “you’re putting up a barrier to airflow, so that is concerning from an exposure perspective.”

The enclosed spaces — the yurts, the igloos, the ice-fishing shacks — besides being expensive, need proper cross-ventilation, are limited to people who are in the same family (or in a Nova Scotian context, who are in the same social bubble), need to be cleaned and aired out after each sitting, and can pose a threat to the wait staff who have to do the cleaning and airing out. Many cities have no regulations governing outdoor dining but the State of Illinois considers any enclosed tent to be indoors and NYC treats outdoor spaces walled in on three or more sides as indoor restaurants and caps capacity at 25%. Which, in the case of a rooftop igloo like the one pictured below (which is actually on the roof of the Watergate Hotel in D.C.) would mean sitting by yourself:

Igloo, Next Whisky Bar terrace, Watergate Hotel, D.C.

Igloo, Next Whisky Bar terrace, Watergate Hotel, D.C.


Outdoor heaters

What about adding heaters to existing patios?

That seems like an easy solution, until you start reading the pros and cons of the various types of heaters. The online restaurant retailer WebstaurantStore provides a handy guide to outdoor heaters and here’s a sample entry for a “mushroom style” propane heater which sells for about $180 (US):

Mushroom heater review

Source: WebstaurantStore


Back in October, CityLab writer Linda Poon reported that outdoor heaters — which she priced between $150 and $1,500 — were the “go-to” solution for many restaurants:

Already in some neighborhoods, armies of mushroom-shaped heat lamps line sidewalks and streets, hinting at what could become an iconic Covid winter scene. Several cities have also eased outdoor heating restrictions, waived permit fees and provided grants to help businesses cover some of the costs. Meanwhile the recent rush to buy heaters has led to a surge of demand and a shortage of supply in several major U.S. cities, including New York City and Washington, D.C. Fire pits are in high demand, too, though they’re not allowed in some cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia. And even in places where fire pits aren’t prohibited, they demand more space, which some businesses simply do not have.

But she went on to point out that this solution is too expensive for many businesses and is “not entirely climate friendly”:

The environmental think tank Negawatt estimates that having four propane heaters running 14 hours a day during winter months can emit 13.6 tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of driving a car around the globe three times. While the impact may not compare to other greenhouse gas emitters like car traffic, it’s not insignificant.


Chicago’s experiment with outdoor dining hit a snag on November 16, when Mayor Lori Lightfoot issued a 30-day Stay-at-Home advisory, effectively pressing pause on both indoor and outdoor restaurant dining. (The city’s COVID infection rate was hovering around 15%.) That said, the mayor has proposed extending about 1,000 sidewalk café permits, set to expire on 28 February 2021, to June 1. Her proposal will also allow the 450 restaurants, bars and cafes now operating in private parking lots, on sidewalks or in streets closed to traffic to operate through the end of 2021.

But a recent state-by-state survey by the National Restaurant Association found that over 50% of the state’s bar and restaurant owners feared that without federal relief, they’ll be out of business in six months. And some Chicago restaurants are simply closing for the winter, hoping to re-open early in 2021, attempts at surviving on take-out and/or outdoor dining having fallen flat.

So as a method of ensuring the future of restaurants in a pandemic, outdoor dining is probably not the answer — even in Halifax, where COVID rates are nowhere near those of a city like Chicago, restaurants and bars have been closed for three weeks in the name of limiting the virus.

Which means this brisk walk through the world of outdoor winter dining has brought us right back where we began — to Paul MacDougall’s suggestion re “outside winter coffee shops, craft markets, food trucks, etc.”

For me, that means the kind of outdoor Christmas market common in European cities.


Prague Christmas Market, 2008

Prague Christmas Market, 2008. Photo by Pudelek (Marcin Szala), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The one I know best is Prague’s Old Town Square market, pictured above, because I used to work on the square and during the season, would generally buy hot wine and wander through the market every night on my way home.

I just read that the Czech Republic, hit hard during this second wave of COVID, has canceled all its Christmas markets this year and obviously, looking at that photo above, a COVID safe version would need some rejigging.

But with hot beverages, warm snacks (the Prague market specialized in latkes and something resembling a cinnamon roll) and some social distancing, I think an outdoor market could work here.

Because it’s not just about COVID, it’s about embracing winter, a concept it’s time I stopped writing about and started practicing.

Just as soon as my pocket potato heats up…