Tips for Sustainable Outdoor Dining This Winter

young woman reading menu at cafe outdoor table

It’s no secret that the pandemic has been hard on the restaurant industry. And the holiday season is when many restaurants earn the bulk of their yearly revenue. Although restrictions on indoor dining abound, many people want to support their local cafés and eateries. Keeping our distance outside seems safer than being enclosed in a restaurant with other patrons, but how will winter outdoor dining work?

Despite the cold outside, more restaurants are offering outdoor dining options. Where allowed by local health authorities, restaurants are offering dining in a variety of outdoor locations, including gardens, patios, and rooftops. Some establishments in municipalities like New York, L.A., and Washington D.C. are even receiving grants to winterize their patios.

Before you brave the cold, here are some tips for dining outdoors this winter safely and sustainably.

Know the Facts

Outdoor dining is safer than indoor dining because poor ventilation, enclosed spaces, and prolonged exposure all increase the risk of the spread of COVID-19. According to recent research conducted on virus transmission through fomites (infected surfaces or objects), stricter indoor hygiene measures, including regular disinfection, do not guarantee safety. An infected person in an enclosed space is almost 20 times more likely to transmit the virus than if they were outside.

But popular propane patio heaters can make outdoor dining unpalatable for eco-minded eaters. Experts estimate that propane-heating a roughly 800-square-foot patio from November to March could emit as much CO2 as a car circling the Earth three times. Many European countries have even banned them due to unsavory fossil fuel consumption.

Ask Restaurants About Their Heaters’ Power Source

Because of the pandemic, experts say we reached “peak oil” in 2019 — and the industry likely won’t bounce back. Rejecting propane-fueled mushroom heaters can further reduce reliance on oil.

Eater is a good place to start for finding establishments near you with outdoor heat lamps. You can call or message to ask whether they use propane (as opposed to more sustainable electric infrared heaters). While heater updates likely aren’t a priority for eateries right now, you may plant a seed for future changes.

As for restaurants doing this right, First Hospitality restaurant group has been trialing outdoor dining across its eight restaurants in Illinois, Ohio, and Kentucky since May. Their 8Up Elevated Drinkery And Kitchen in Louisville, for example, will be creating a “winter wonderland experience for all types of weather” using fireplaces, igloo rentals for private parties, electric heaters, greenery, and wind blockers.

Dress in Layers

You’ll also want to use some old-fashioned common sense and wear layers. Be prepared to stay warm with an extra hat, scarf, or pair of gloves.

Also, U.S. restaurants are catching on to a practical solution that is common abroad: to offer blankets as an easy, low-cost option. Where blankets are not available, what’s stopping you from bringing your own? (Keep them handy in your car in case of spontaneous dining.)

This is no problem at Olmsted in Brooklyn, where you’ll get a colorful Pendleton blanket alongside your mug of hot chocolate. Speaking of which…

Warm Up From the Inside Out

Turning to the soup section or warm drink menu will give you something to look forward to the next time you’re dining outside. It’s a great excuse to try your local café’s newest concoction.

First Hospitality, for one, plans to add sustainable, hearty soups and stews to all menus, while Electric Cool-Aid in Washington D.C. is making spiked cider and hot toddies permanent after they proved a hit over Halloween.

Show Up But Dine Outside

One of the best ways to help raise the spirits of local restaurant workers in tough times is by showing up. If people in Alaska, Minnesota, and Scandinavia can bravely face the elements to dine outdoors, so can you! It will likely raise your spirits as well.

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