Outdoor Dining Is Doomed – The Atlantic

These days, strolling through downtown New York, where I live, is like making your way through the aftermath of a party. In many ways, that’s exactly what it is: Striking lights, trash-strewn puddles, and cracked plywood are all vestiges of the boisterous celebration known as al fresco dining.

These wooden “streets” and makeshift tables lining the sidewalks first appeared during the depths of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, when restaurants needed to get diners back to their seats. It was novel, creative, and spontaneous—and fun at a time when there wasn’t much fun. For a while, al fresco dining really looked as if it could survive the pandemic. Just last October, New York Magazine He wrote that it would continue, “perhaps permanently”.

But now someone has turned on the lights and cut off the music. Across the country, something has changed about outdoor dining in recent months. As fears of the coronavirus recede, people are losing their appetite for food between items. This winter, many streets are empty, except for a few people with the novel coronavirus who are willing to brave the cold. Hannah Cutting-Jones, director of food studies at the University of Oregon, tells me that in Eugene, where she lives, outdoor dining “absolutely doesn’t happen” right now. In recent weeks, cities like New York and Philadelphia have begun demolishing unused streetscapes. The modernist sheen of al fresco dining has faded; What once raised Grand Streets Paris has turned into an unsanitary table next to a parked car. Even the pandemic, it turns out, couldn’t overcome the reasons why Americans didn’t like eating outdoors in the first place.

For a while, the allure of al fresco dining was evident. COVID safety aside, it has kept struggling restaurants afloat, boosted some low-income communities, and sowed the joy of living in bleak times. At one point, more than 12,700 New York restaurants took to the streets, and the city—along with others, including Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia—suggested making food sheds permanent. But so far, only a handful of cities have adopted any official rules. At this point, it’s unclear if they will. Without formal sanctions, increasing pressure from opponents of al fresco dining would likely destroy existing shacks; Already, people keep tweeting Disapproval of pictures in the sanitation departments. Part of the problem is that as most Americans care about the COVID receding, it’s becoming harder to overlook the potential downsides: less parking, more trash, tacky aesthetics, and oh god, mice. Many of New York’s best restaurants voluntarily shed their barns this winter.

The economics of outdoor dining may not make sense for restaurants either. Although hailed as a boon for restaurants struggling during the height of the pandemic, the practice may make less sense now that indoor dining is back. For one thing, said Cutting-Jones, food stands tend to take up the parking spaces needed to attract customers. The fact that most restaurants are chains doesn’t help: “If any conglomerate that owns a Longhorn Steakhouse didn’t want to invest in al fresco dining, it wouldn’t become the norm,” Rebecca Spang, a food historian at Indiana University Bloomington, tells me. In addition, she added, many restaurants are already understaffed, even without the extra seating.

In a sense, it was doomed to fail outdoor dining. It has always been at odds with the physical makeup of much of the country, as anyone who has eaten out during a pandemic has inevitably noticed. The most obvious drawback is the weather, which is sometimes nice but more often than not it isn’t. “Who wants to eat on the sidewalk in Phoenix in July?” Spang said.

The other is the uncomfortable proximity to vehicles. Food barns splashed out on the streets like shepherds after too many drinks. The problem was that American roads were built for cars, not people. That’s not true of places popular with al fresco dining, like Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, which were urban before the automobile, Megan Elias, historian and director of the gastronomy program at Boston University, tells me. At best, this means that meals al fresco in America are typically enjoyed with a side of traffic. At worst, they end up in serious collisions.

It was easy to put up with cars and bad weather when it seemed like eating indoors was a much more serious health risk than inhaling fumes and shivering from the cold. It had a kind of romance—the camaraderie that was born out of discomfort. You have to admit, there was a time when relaxing under a heat lamp with a hot beverage was totally magical. But now, outdoor dining is back to what it always was: something most Americans want to avoid under all but the best of circumstances. This type of relapse may reduce your chances of eating outdoors even when the weather cooperates.

But outdoor dining is also affected by more existential issues that have overcome the nearly three years of COVID life. Eating out at restaurants is expensive, and Americans like to get their money’s worth. When safety is not a concern, shelling out for a meal on the street may not seem feasible to most diners. “There has to be a purpose to being outdoors, either because the climate is so nice or because there’s a great view,” Paul Friedman, a Yale history professor who specializes in the kitchen, told me. For some diners, outdoor seating may seem too casual: Historically, Americans have associated dining at restaurants with special occasions, such as celebrating a high-profile stage at Delmonico’s, the legendary fine-dining establishment that opened in the 19th century, on In the words of Cutting Jones.

In contrast, eating outdoors was associated with more informal experiences, such as getting a hot dog at Coney Island. “We have high expectations of what it should be like to eat out,” she said, noting that American diners are particularly enthusiastic about the convenience. Even the most luxurious of COVID cabins may not be able to make it past these engagements. “If a restaurant is fancy and they charge $200 a person,” Friedman said, “most people can’t escape the feeling that they spent that much money on a “picnic down the street.”

Al fresco dining is not going away completely. In the coming years, there’s a good chance that more Americans will have the opportunity to eat out in nicer months than they did before the pandemic—even if it’s not the widespread practice many predicted earlier in the pandemic. Wherever it continues, it will almost certainly be different: more buttoned-up, less outlaw–perhaps less sexy. Santa Barbara, for example, made food sheds permanent last year but specified that they must be painted in an approved “iron color.” It may also be less common among restaurant owners: If regulations for outdoor dining are too far-reaching or too expensive, it “creates barriers for businesses,” warns Hayrettin Günç, an architect with the Global Cities Design Initiative.

For now, outdoor dining is another COVID-related convention that hasn’t completely stopped—as is avoiding handshakes and universal telecommuting. As the pandemic subsides, the trend is to default to the ways things were before. It is certainly easier to do than come up with policies to accommodate new habits. In the case of outdoor dining, it is also more comfortable. If it continues like this, al fresco dining in the US could return to how it was before the pandemic: al fresco dining along the street-lamp-lined porches of Venetian Las Vegas, and under the green canopy of the Rainforest Café.


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