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A blue shack with windows and diners visible inside at night.
Many outdoor dining spaces are over enclosed.

The Highs and Sub-Freezing Lows of Dining Outside in Winter

As a snowstorm makes its way across NYC, critic Robert Sietsema shares his tips on how to stay warm while dining alfresco all winter long

A friend of mine claims she loves eating outside in the winter, maybe even more than being in a heated dining room. She brings a shawl with her, but sits on it rather than wraps it around her shoulders, a good reminder that heat can escape from any surface of the body. “It’s like eating in a ski resort,” she tells me, which is a jolly thought.

As a restaurant critic, I’m eating outdoors a lot these days. While most people in the city may brave the occasional sub-freezing streetside dinner, I’m out a few nights a week at least. And because I’m dining out cautiously — avoiding overbuilt, shed-like setups that don’t allow for airflow — I’m resigned to being exposed to the elements to avoid being exposed to the virus.

While an alfresco dinner in summertime seems like the most pleasant thing in the world, eating outdoors in the New York winter is quite a different kettle of fish. Icy weather introduces a host of new quirks to the dining experience, leaving us with numb fingers, baked faces, cold food that ought to be warm, and grease spots on our coats. Nevertheless, there’s a real joy to be found in persevering and enjoying good food in spite of adversity.

People sitting in an outdoor dining space with snow visible in the background.
Snowy winter scenes now often contain diners.

With coronavirus-era dining, our cherished habits have been upended. Like many in the city, I formerly ate at 8 p.m. or so, and my colleague Ryan Sutton used to eat much later in the days when many restaurants were open till midnight. Nowadays the rules state that eateries must close by 10 p.m. — and that means really close, so you can’t sashay in at, say, 9:45 p.m. and expect to be fed, as I did recently with two pals at a Portuguese restaurant in the West Village. They served us a cocktail, but no food since the kitchen was already shut.

A fire in a round grill with people sitting and standing around it.
At Industry City, you can eat around a fire pit.

Basking beneath multiple electric heat lamps, we talked about the superiority of electricity over propane gas, with the former providing a more even and predictable heat. Even the electric ones are a mixed blessing. That’s because they only broil one side of you, leaving the other side still cold. If you could turn yourself like a rotisserie, you might be happy, but whether overhead or in front, heat lamps can nearly blister a bald head or fry a face in the course of a meal.

By leaving your coat, hat, and gloves on, and intermittently applying your mask, you can partly insulate yourself from this omnidirectional heat, but will gradually begin to swelter on one side, even when it’s freezing outside. And every spot with a liquor license, we decided, ought to offer warm cocktails in the cold winter months, because there’s nothing worse than sitting down on a frigid evening and slurping a drink on the rocks, which makes you as cold inside as out.

These radiant heat sources may be more effective in an enclosed space, which brings up another topic. In their quest to make outdoor winter dining more comfortable, many restaurants have overbuilt their street enclosures, often making them look like garden sheds. Impromptu versions of this dodgy arrangement enclose all four sides with plastic and other temporary materials.

A backyard space with a table of diners and heat lamps.
Sometimes multiple heat lamps are needed, as at Bolero.
A boxy and yellow tinted space seen through a window with a few diners and heat coils above.
Overhead heat lamps and an enclosed space.

Current regulations state that outdoor spaces may only be penned in on two sides, though I’ve seen three-sided enclosures look safe as long as maximum air movement is guaranteed — and they are technically allowed at 25 percent capacity. But many of today’s outdoor spaces are way too sealed up, and the tiny plastic partitions between groups are a laughable defense against floating and flowing viruses. Remember, catching COVID involves extended exposure to someone who has the virus in an enclosed space, and a semi-enclosed space can be nearly as bad.

This fear forces me to arrive at a restaurant and eyeball the exterior dining space to see if enough air is circulating, automatically rejecting those places enclosed on four or occasionally even three sides. But you often don’t know the safety situation till you get there, forcing me to sometimes reject a space and carry the meal out. My friends and I must then find a park bench to eat on, or sit in a car with windows rolled down and the air system blasting. No meal is so good it’s worth getting sick for.

A menu item that says Get Cozy.
At Cafeteria, a blanket can be rented.

That’s enough gloom and doom. Let’s say you’ve inspected a restaurant’s outdoor facilities and approved. You’ve dressed warmly for your excursion to the restaurant; now, add one extra layer before you leave or bring it along with you. As a body sits during a meal, one’s basal temperature drops, and the only remedy is bringing an extra sweater and adding another layer to keep you warm as you sit, body temperature gradually declining despite the efforts of your hot toddy.

The inside of a yurt with sheepskins draped over chairs.
Get cozy in your sheepskin at Fairfax.

I have friends who’ve gotten really creative with this concept. One has a sweatshirt with a battery inside that provides extra warmth when the thing is turned on. Other guests have come outfitted with disposable hand and foot warmers. Another swears by flannel-lined jeans. As I know from attending football games in Wisconsin, a lap robe can also be a good move — a blanket that can be put over your lap for increased warmth, or pulled up over your shoulders to dispel an icy blast.

Some restaurants provide actual rustic animal skins, like the cave dwellers presumably used, for this purpose, as Fairfax does inside its yurts. The restaurant called Cafeteria rents blankets for $7 that it swears are sanitary. You don’t get to keep them, either. Of course, you can avoid this charge by simply bringing an Afghan, small blanket, or shawl from your apartment.

One difference between normal, pre-pandemic dining and outdoor winter dining is the length of your meal. When sitting outside in the cold, you’d prefer to dine in an hour or less, even where a multicourse meal is concerned. Expeditiousness is the word, especially since dishes served piping hot rapidly become stone cold. This is quite a change from the days when you might have preferred to linger two hours or more over a wonderful meal. After an hour of the arctic outdoors, nearly anyone becomes antsy.

As a result, you need to plot your meal in a different way. Most restaurants have assisted by offering shorter menus, eliminating those dishes that require elaborate preparation or presentation. You can help by ordering more simply and setting your expectations somewhat lower, for both food and service.

For example, I made the mistake of ordering one whole fish at a Hunan restaurant with a long menu. Not only did it take much longer to prepare — with the plate arriving 20 minutes later than everything else, so that my guests were visibly shivering when it swam in — but in the dark, we had trouble carving the critter and bones ended up in each portion.

Which suggests another rule for dining outdoors: Since you may be dining in semi-darkness, pick things that you don’t have to see well. This extends to whole fish, uncarved chickens, steamed lobsters, and curries studded with stick cinnamon and whole cloves.

A threesome including a child bend over a whole fish in the dark.
It’s hard to carve your whole fish in the semi-darkness.

Alternately, some foods excel in the dark and cold of winter. I recently discovered that very spicy food, for instance, is a boon in frigid weather. A tongue taco from a truck makes you even warmer if eaten with plenty of fiery salsa verde, and that goes double for Sichuan dishes swimming in chile oil. Heck, the bright red oil makes you even feel warmer just looking at it.

One more consideration I feel compelled to mention. Since starting to eat outside in cold weather, my cleaning bill has soared. Why? Well, when you eat at a pleasant temperature and spill something on your shirt, it means just one extra item thrown in the laundry. But dribble the same something on your suede coat or bubble parka and the cleaning bill can run as high as $20. In fact, keeping my winter clothes clean has become a real battle, and one that I usually lose.

Oh well, maybe someone can invent some giant overshirt, or fancy torso-size bib, to address this problem. Till then, that’s me you see coming down the street, my coat covered with grease spots.

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