The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pop-up greenhouses, yurts and reptile heat lamps: Restaurants are getting creative to survive the winter

Lucia Bond, left, and Carol King, wrapped in complimentary blankets, enjoy brunch at Belga Cafe on Capitol Hill. (Scott Suchman for The Washington Post)
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Let’s be frank: November is not the most wonderful time of the year. It’s dark before you “leave” your home office, and wind chills require you to bundle up before heading outside. On a cold Tuesday or Thursday night, deciding to cozy up on the couch with a streaming movie and a bottle of wine seems like a much better idea than going out for dinner and drinks.

This is the nightmare scenario facing local restaurants and bars. Since the beginning of the pandemic, experts have agreed that dining outdoors is much safer than dining indoors, thanks to increased ventilation and socially distanced tables. After being cooped up for months, the ability to spend humid summer evenings in beer gardens and on sidewalk patios was a welcome escape. But being outside, wearing a heavy coat while eating dinner — that’s a different proposition entirely.

Some bars and restaurants have already announced they’ll be closing for the winter, figuring it’s cheaper to go dark for a couple of months than to try to fill their patios: So long to Room 11 and several bars owned by Eric and Ian Hilton, including Marvin, the Gibson and the Brixton, which closed on Halloween; Bloomingdale’s Boundary Stone will join them on Nov. 25. Others, though, are making necessary changes that they believe will allow them to stay open until spring.

Outdoor dining has helped restaurants avoid disaster. But winter is coming.

Paul Holder, one of the partners in the Salt Line near Nationals Park, says that, “ordinarily, we’d contract into our indoor space” at this time of year, with a couple of fire pits outdoors for brave or foolhardy guests. But even now, he says, 90 percent of guests still ask to sit outside. So the Salt Line stocked up on heaters and fire pits, erecting tents to keep chilly winds from blowing off the Anacostia River, and rethinking the menu: “It didn’t make sense” to keep a lobster platter on the menu, Holder says, “because it was going to get cold really quickly” once it was delivered to guests outdoors.

More restaurants are winterizing the their curbside “streeteries”: Paul Carlson, the owner of the Royal and Lulu’s Winegarden, says there’s a balance. “Fighting the wind is a big thing,” he says. “Temperature drops are temperature drops. People can dress accordingly for that. But wind makes it feel so cold.” He’s surrounding the sidewalk tables with low walls and protective plastic, in addition to the shelter provided by roofs, but at the same time, “once we completely enclose the tables, that defeats the purpose of being outside to fight the coronavirus.”

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As nights get colder, more people could decide that maybe they’re actually okay with dining indoors than they thought, which, theoretically, could lead to more transmission. (Some restaurants, anecdotally, say they’re already seeing a willingness to do so.) But even at an “outside” bar, your comfort level might vary. Ambar on Capitol Hill, for instance, can’t open the windows of its upstairs patio but keeps the roof open. Lena’s Oasis in Alexandria keeps all four walls of its tent down, making it similar to being indoors, while large fans circulate the air.

Carlson suggests that customers might wind up adapting their habits to daylight saving time: “Going out is going to be more of a daytime activity than a nighttime activity,” he predicts. “Our level of business during the day has been very good,” as opposed to after-dark drinks. But who knows: “Every day, we’re coming up with new ideas.”

To see how restaurants and bars are approaching the winter, we reached out to some of our favorite outdoor dining destinations. This obviously isn’t a comprehensive list: Mayor Murial E. Bowser (D) has announced that hundreds of businesses in Washington will receive grants to help winterize their patios. But it’s a window into how creative restaurants can be to survive.

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Restaurateur Ivan Iricanin finds D.C. winters to be mild, especially compared with his native Serbia, where he also operates restaurants. “D.C., we don’t have that much snow. It’s not even cold,” he says. That’s why his plan is to keep the retractable roof open as much as possible on clear days at his Capitol Hill restaurant’s pink-hued Garden Room, so diners who want to be in the open air will see a glimpse of the sky between wooden beams and greenery. Radiant heating keeps the room warm when the roof is open and temperatures drop (the third-floor dining room’s fireproof windows aren’t operable). The rooftop is part of a multimillion dollar renovation to Ambar unveiled in June, and the Balkan restaurant’s popular small plates deal carries over into the new space with such dishes as flatbreads or pork belly-stuffed cabbage. 523 Eighth St SE. — A.C.

Belga Cafe

Barracks Row has its fair share of outdoor dining, from the fenced, tented tables outside Rose’s Luxury to the plastic snow globes at Ted’s Bulletin. But none of the seating options make passersby stop and pull out their smartphones like the pair of greenhouses in front of Belga Cafe. Each is eclectically decorated: colorful carpets, mismatched chairs topped by fuzzy pillows, an array of candles and a funky lampshade. Each contains one table for a maximum of four people, making it perfect for a date or dinner with your pod. The greenhouses are heated, and one panel of each roof is open to improve air circulation. (It can be closed in case of bad weather.) Belga offers a standard tented, heated patio, but in-the-know customers can call the restaurant directly to ask about booking the greenhouses. Chef and owner Bart Vandaele says that they’ve been especially popular at brunch, but not to worry: Three more of the custom-built structures are coming. “We have them in-house,” Vandaele says. “We just have to build them. It’s going to be like a little village.” 514 Eighth St. SE. — F.H.

Doi Moi

The new covered patio decorated with hanging plants and a tropical palette at Doi Moi is beautiful on sunny days, and equally inviting in a storm. “People seem to really dig the acoustics of the rain pelting this corrugated plastic roof,” says Desmond Reilly, one of three managing principals of Star Restaurant Group. The Logan Circle restaurant unveiled its renovation along with a revamped, Vietnamese-inspired menu in August, with such entrees as steamed shellfish infused with lemongrass and an entire section devoted to banh mi. Seating on the 10-seat patio is first come, first served, and Reilly plans to wrap the space and add baseboard heaters this month, with five propane heaters already installed near sidewalk tables. 1800 14th St. NW. — A.C.

El Rey and Victura Park

Eric and Ian Hilton’s September announcement that they’d be closing seven of their restaurants and bars “for the foreseeable future” shook D.C.’s hospitality industry. After an outpouring of support, the Hiltons relented and announced that the U Street taqueria and margarita garden El Rey would remain open. (Its large outdoor courtyard, topped by a retractable roof, makes it easier for El Rey to stay in business than sister bars, which have small rooftops or patios.) Ian Hilton describes El Rey’s operations as “a week-to-week situation.” He says the roof will be open “more often than not,” and that El Rey will take over operations of the existing streetery at the Brixton, located a few doors down, to provide even more outdoor dining capacity. But that’s not the only plan the Hiltons have for the winter: Ian says they’re turning Victura Park, the beer and wine garden at the Kennedy Center’s Reach expansion, into a holiday market, tentatively set to start Black Friday and run into December. Open Friday through Sunday, Hilton says the market will have 10 to 12 rotating vendors, as well as fire pits, hot drinks, and a seating area with long tables. El Rey: 919 U St. NW. Victura Park: 2700 F St. NW. — F.H.

El Techo

From the street, El Techo’s roof panels almost look like the wings of a bird: 12 roof bays flip up from horizontal to vertical with the flip of a switch. “The space is kind of like a convertible car would be. We can really make it adapt to whatever the occasion or temperatures are,” says owner Louie Hankins of his rooftop venue in Shaw. Depending on the weather, El Techo can be completely open or totally enclosed, and sliding glass wall panels can also open and shut for air flow. Dangling wisteria and basket lanterns are one constant in the dining room, designed to be reminiscent of Tulum. El Techo serves up spicy mezcal margaritas and fried avocado tacos, with new fall drinks added to the roster such as a cinnamon Old Fashioned and hot chocolate spiked with tequila or mezcal. Reservations are suggested for the 90-minute rooftop dining slots — particularly since a recent TikTok filmed on the rooftop racked up nearly 50,000 likes and inspired Saturday night sellouts for three weeks in advance. Right now, El Techo is outfitted with electric heaters, but Hankins is planning on installing an HVAC system for the roof deck featuring air-disinfecting UV light. 606 Florida Ave. NW. — A.C.

Electric Cool-Aid

Electric Cool-Aid was a bright spot in this unusual summer: a colorful, welcoming place to sit at umbrella-shaded picnic tables and enjoy frozen drinks in Shaw. Co-founder Angela DelBrocco says that when she and her two partners original launched plans for the lot at Sixth Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW, “We envisioned closing in cold months. If there had been no covid, we would have stayed open through the inauguration, and then closed up until it was sustainably warm. But now that people can’t drink indoors, there’s no better alternative to us.” Electric Cool-Aid erected a large wedding-style tent over rows of picnic tables, with strategically placed heaters — which look like glowing orange sci-fi ray guns — aimed at table height. (DelBrocco, who worked at and ran bars in Chicago before moving to the District, says she learned that this is an effective way to keep bodies warm.) Over the next few months, DelBrocco says the goal is to be “as flexible as possible.” They’re adding more spiked cider and hot toddies after the drinks proved more popular than expected over Halloween weekend; discussed adding cabanas; and are planning to decorate for the holidays, in the spirit of the pop-up bar that once drew crowds a few blocks away, though within reason: “We know the power of Instagramable fun,” DelBrocco says, “but we can’t have a sleigh” for people to pose in. “We’re not going to sanitize that.” 512 Rhode Island Ave. NW. — F.H.


The Oaxacan restaurant and mezcal bar invested in a side patio in 2016, spending between $50,000 to $70,000 over the years to trick it out with such features as a rain-shielding metal roof and built-in heaters. It’s paid off this year. “Most nights, we have one- to two-hour waits,” says Espita partner Kelly Phillips. “Fridays and Saturdays, I’ve quoted people three hours, four hours for a table.” Luckily, reservations are available online for the covered patio, where you can sit and order barbacoa tacos — or Philly cheesesteaks and tomatillo-relish-topped burgers from Espita’s new ghost kitchen venture, Ghostburger. In addition to electric wall heaters, Espita is currently installing patio propane heaters, too. 1250 Ninth St. NW. — A.C.

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Le Diplomate

Stepping inside 14th Street’s Le Diplomate always felt as if you were walking into a bistro in the Marais, but a new section of street seating adds to the illusion. “You really feel even more like you’re in Paris,” says Eva Torres, the director of restaurants for Starr Restaurants in D.C. To ward off the chill, Torres brought in propane heaters in the outdoor parklet seating area and Le Diplomate-branded blankets for guests to use while sitting outside, either to borrow or to purchase. Le Terrace, the restaurant’s permanent covered patio equipped with electric heaters, is a warm outdoor spot to shelter from the rain. Le Diplomate can’t guarantee availability for the 40-seat Le Terrace, but hosts try to accommodate guests’ reservations as much as possible, says Torres. 1601 14th St. NW. — A.C.

Lena's Oasis

One of the most stunning transformations in response to the pandemic has been at Lena’s Wood-Fired Pizza in Del Ray, where the roof of a parking garage, which once held 25 spaces for customers, has become Lena’s Oasis, a tropical escape with brightly tiled tables, potted palms and gauzy fabric dividers between socially distanced seating areas. The tent is fully enclosed, which means it isn’t technically outdoor dining, but it provides around 100 seats, whereas Lena’s beer garden can hold about 10 tables because of spacing. Donna Shore, a representative of Lena’s, says that airflow shouldn’t be an issue because the Oasis “doesn’t use recycled air. Fresh air is constantly pulled from outside,” and heated to maintain the temperature. (For those who are still not completely comfortable with the idea of dining “indoors,” there is an outdoor terrace that uses more traditional heaters, and is still an attractive spot to dine.) Lena’s Oasis has a slightly different menu than the well-known pizza restaurant and beer garden, with beachy cocktails suited for a staycation. 401 E. Braddock Rd., Alexandria. — F.H.

Nina May

The team at Shaw farm-to-table restaurant Nina May aims to give diners options this winter: Besides the indoor dining room, there’s a heated upstairs space with a roof and sides that can open and close, along with a tented patio. “In case of bad rain, we try to close all of the sides and keep one side open for air circulation,” co-owner Danilo Simic says of the patio tent. “We’ve got our heaters next to each of the tables so people feel as comfortable as possible.” It must be working, because on a recent cold and rainy day, 60 people still wanted to dine alfresco, Simic says. Nina May is transforming the ground-level tented patio into a more permanent structure, building a 25-seat glassy pergola equipped with heaters and a retractable roof and retractable sides. The hope is to debut that new outdoor space in early 2021. 1337 11th St. NW. — A.C.

The Royal

Open daily at 10 a.m., the Royal has always offered a little something for everyone, from avocado, egg and cheese sandwiches through happy hour cocktails and glasses of wine. Owner Paul Carlson has noticed that, in recent months, customers push their visits earlier: More breakfast orders, more people drinking coffee and “working from home” at the sunny little streetery. Because the Royal sits on the corner of Florida Avenue and Fifth Street NW, it’s lucky enough to have two outdoor dining areas. The one along Fifth, which was updated last week, separates tables with planters filled with greenery, and while lattice walls cut down the wind while allowing air to circulate. Carlson is trying to get creative — he’s thinking about using reptile heat lamps over tables to keep dishes warmer longer — but there are limits: “None of the things we can do are permanent, so they can’t be a massive investment of time and money.” One visit, and you’ll think they’re doing pretty well. 501 Florida Ave. NW. — F.H.

The Salt Line

For most of the year, the Salt Line’s prime position on the Anacostia River is its selling point — except in cold weather, when sharp winds come whipping in off the water. Normally, this isn’t a problem: Most of the Salt Line’s business moves inside, beginning in the fall. Not this year. Paul Holder, one of the partners in the seafood restaurant, says they began stocking up on heaters in the summer and currently have six tables with fire pits in the center as well as 32 tall propane heaters, which are arranged between tables to serve as social distance markers as well as heat sources. The long row of tables along the water is shielded from the river by the wall of a tent. “It’s protection from the wind, and to encapsulate the heat,” Holder says. The Salt Line decided to roll up the other three walls of the tent because “we wanted fresh air. We didn’t want to create just an extension of indoor dining outside.” It’s a comfortable and elegant solution, best enjoyed with a toddy or glass of mulled rose in hand. 79 Potomac Ave. SE. — F.H.

Waredaca Brewing

The appeal of going to a farm brewery is sitting outside and drinking beer in nature — unless you’re at Waredaca Brewing, that is, where the most coveted tables are rentable “yurts.” These canvas tents, created with the help of a local company called Epic Glamping, are heated, fall-themed spaces with picnic tables and hay bales undercover. “They remind us of the platform tents from the old days of Camp Waredaca overnight summer camp,” explains Waredaca’s Jessica Snider. The yurts, rented in two-hour time blocks, can accommodate up to eight people, and the brewery offers extras, such as tasting flights, and groups can bring their own food. Reservations for the six yurts currently run through December; Snider says no decisions have been made about whether they’ll be open beyond that. 4017 Damascus Rd., Laytonsville. Yurts $45-$60 depending on day and time of reservation. — F.H.

Where’s the most relaxing place to sip a cold beer outdoors? At a farm brewery.