When the pandemic hit, Minnesota restaurants were limited to takeout service. On June 1, the state allowed restaurants to serve outside and many municipalities eased their restrictions, allowing restaurants, coffee shops and bars to supplement their reduced indoor seating with new or expanded sidewalk seating, patios and pop-up tents.
Some outdoor eating areas may be little more than a couple of chairs on a city sidewalk, but others weave a blend of sensory experiences with flower-filled planters and thoughtful lighting.
And Minnesotans have taken to dining al fresco, even if that means adapting to less-than-perfect locations, temperatures and noise levels.
"We've been noticing that more people are sitting outside — even if it's a little hot or drizzling," said Patti Soskin, the owner of Yum! Kitchen and Bakery in St. Louis Park and Minnetonka. Even after restaurants were able to allow indoor dining at 50% capacity, Soskin said most customers still prefer to sit outside.
In May, Soskin had expanded the limited outdoor space at her St. Louis Park location into the sidewalk to accommodate more customers, setting up outdoor tables under bright red umbrellas. Thanks to takeout and the popular outdoor seating, Yum has hired back almost all of its employees and plans to hire more, Soskin said.
In some cases, outdoor dining has been a lifesaver for restaurants. Longtime chef and restaurant manager Heather Asbury had the inauspicious luck to open her Minneapolis restaurant, Heather's, two days after the March 16 statewide shutdown.
But the brick-paved patio behind her restaurant, at 5201 Chicago Av. S., has become a community destination. "We built it in just four days, anticipating the outdoor dining announcement," Asbury said.
Although the indoor dining room is still closed, the patio and its dozen or so tables are often filled from breakfast through dinner.
"It's already paid for itself," she said. "People are even starting to come from the suburbs."
Party tents and palms
In 2018, Chef Juan Yunga, and his wife, Ann Carlson-Yunga, opened La Mesa in the heart of the Bryn Mawr neighborhood of Minneapolis.
Originally built as a service garage in 1920s, their one-story brick building was designed with wide bays that create a welcoming seasonal connection between the indoor bar/dining area and their streetside seating.
Before the pandemic, they had already planned to rebuild their cracked and sloped street-front patio. During the takeout-only period, they replaced the patio with a lovely (and level) terrace, complete with ornamental steel railings that wrap around the mature locust trees shading the space. Slightly elevated from the street, customers feel part of the neighborhood yet also sheltered from traffic.
"Our few remaining indoor tables are hardly used," said Carlson-Yunga. "People just seem more comfortable outside — and our regulars are thrilled that their drinks no longer slide down sloping tables."
In Golden Valley, popular Asian restaurant Lat14 Asian Eatery has shifted entirely to outdoor service.
In April, owner and chef Ann Ahmed started planning for a 30- by 60-foot tent in their parking area. Anchored by 400-pound ballasts, the big party tent and its wind screens create a sense of solidity and sheltered seating for 100 guests at wooden booths and cafe tables with rattan French bistro chairs.
Potted palms and strings of lights overhead create a urbane nighttime atmosphere. You almost have the sense that you could be sitting on a sidewalk in Hanoi or Marseilles — all of this on a parking lot in a Minneapolis suburb.
"After the shutdown, people are so appreciative that we give them the space to forget the traffic, the isolation, the pandemic," Ahmed said.
The weather question
In fact, some customers have even forgotten about the weather.
During a few recent thunderstorms, diners felt so safe and comfortable that they wanted to stay under the tent.
"If it gets bad, we ask them if they'd like to move inside," she said. "But when the storm subsides, they all want to go back out."
For restaurants and customers, this challenging year has demanded adaptation. Our newest outdoor spaces are increasingly sophisticated, weather-friendly and enrich the life of streets around them.
With cold weather approaching, however, restaurant owners are asking how they can extend outdoor dining well into October. One option is the vertical gas heaters that have been part of the restaurant scene in warmer climes for decades. Other strategies include wind screening and optimizing sunlight, adding blankets and warming fires.
In Minnesota, we understand that outdoor dining can only last so long into fall. What we don't know is whether outdoor dining will be a lasting part of our experience once the pandemic ends.
Frank Edgerton Martin is a landscape historian and consulting writer for architecture and design firms.