Along with indoor dining alternatives during the pandemic, such as takeout and delivery and to-go cocktails, outdoor patios have been a godsend for many local restaurants.
Business generated by restaurants from outdoor patio dining “is probably half the reason most of those restaurants are still alive,” says Richmond restaurateur Johnny Giavos.
Even as the city braces for cold and occasionally soggy weather, the prospect of dining inside a restaurant is not something every Richmonder is ready to entertain. So, to prepare for the winter, many restaurants have begun weatherizing their outdoor areas with lamppost heaters, folding umbrellas, retractable awnings, canopy tents — whatever they can afford to get their hands on.
Little Nickel, 4702 Forest Hill Ave.
Little Nickel, Giavos’ Polynesian tiki-themed diner on the South Side, got an entirely new floating patio in July. Built on a slope, the patio juts out from the front of the restaurant like a rock concert stage.
All in, to erect and heat the patio, the project cost nearly $25,000. And that doesn’t even include the greenhouse roof Giavos plans to add in the coming month. Fair to say, it’s a calculated risk, one he hopes will enable the restaurant to achieve the volume it needs to stay open.
The patio may not give diners that tropical tan they’re after. But armed with industrial heater towers, both propane and electric, and a roof, it should help them escape the winter for a bit — at least on those moderately cold days, Giavos says. Pack in a few pupus and tropically inspired finger foods, and diners are sure to find themselves in a wintry mood that’s more Bing Crosby’s “Mele Kalikimaka” and less “White Christmas.”
For an improvement on Hawaiian pizza, I highly recommend a big, beautiful mess of nachos ($14), hosed with queso blanco and cilantro crema and heaped in a colorful rainbow of grilled pineapples, bacon, tomatoes, pickled red onions, and jalapeños. And if you don’t mind fingers as sticky as a flytrap, the wings ($11), glazed in thick, tangy General Tso’s sauce and faintly scented with citrus peel, were practically born ready for a couple of tiki drinks.
Cap things off with a slice of coconut haupia custard pie ($7) on a salty-sweet graham cracker crust. It’s just like the ones you’d find at mom-and-pop bakeries along the coastline of Hawaii’s North Shore.
Sen Organic, 2901 W. Cary St.
On top of building out the patio since May, Sen Organic owner Hang Pham and her staff started adding tent coverings in September, an investment that has already cost nearly $10,000 (not including the outdoor heaters).
“We kind of saw where things were heading in terms of restaurants reopening but only allowing outdoor seating, and we wanted to make that investment,” says hostess and part-time server Hannah Aronson.
Sen Organic’s parking lot-turned-garden oasis is now a makeshift fort of tenting with ornamental windows — and actual openings, of course, for proper ventilation. Still, the space retains a spalike tranquility. The commercial hubbub of Carytown disappears, fading into the soothing patter of jazz piano.
A meal here promises to clear one’s winter-weary mind. Practice deep breathing techniques, while inhaling the gentle vapors from a bouquet of jasmine, chrysanthemum and globe amaranth flowers that blossoms as it steeps into a meditative green tea ($6).
An assortment of phos, bun hues and other Vietnamese soup noodles supply their own form of aromatherapy, with nourishing bone broths (and vegan alternatives) formulated with herbs and spices and possessing seemingly mystical properties.
The “master pho” ($37), made for two people or one unusually hungry person, is presented on a wooden dais in a steamy cauldron of fragrant, soulful beef broth. The vessel brims with earthen vermicelli noodles, fresh herbs and other hidden riches — a fried egg that pours its yolky heart out, oxtails so collagenous and achingly tender, and a shaggy beef short rib as long as the bowl is wide. This dish not only warms the body but also calms the spirit.
Grisette, 3119 E. Marshall St.
Those who’ve driven by Grisette in Church Hill lately almost certainly will have noticed what can only be described as hillbilly cabanas, pitched out front on the sidewalk since mid-October. Each 6-by-6-foot private dining tent comes lighted and equipped with its own picnic table and adjustable overhead heater. To maintain airflow, the front and rear flaps are scrolled up during dinner service.
For owner Donnie Glass, whose ingenuity and make-do spirit he attributes to his time in the military, these tents, designed as portable yard garages, are about “function over fashion.” And at $300 apiece for the whole shebang, lights and heaters included, they’re budget-friendly, too.
“They’re not real pretty, but they’re not real ugly. Right now, I’ll take that,” Glass says. “And they seem to work.”
Just as cozy and weather-appropriate is Grisette’s winter menu. Granted, the restaurant’s smorgasbord of ripe cheeses and decadent charcuterie ($29) and brimming cupfuls of frites ($4.50) — still lustrous from their dip in the deep fryer (and for which I suggest requesting a side of Glass’ signature béarnaise) — have always gone well with any season.
But I can’t imagine a more fitting occasion for snuggly dishes like duck confit swathed in creamy mustard sauce ($19). The duck, its skin still shatteringly crispy, is also rendered unfathomably luscious. Nested over roasted winter vegetables and stewed apples, it’s the kind of fare that, much like a cassoulet or choucroute garnie, buries the chill of winter beneath rich, slowly cooked layers of game and hardy vegetables. It’ll have you thinking of rustic hunting lodges and roaring fireplaces.
River City Roll, 939 Myers St.
With a sticker price of roughly $30,000, River City Roll’s winterizing campaign toward the end of November stands as one of the most expensive and high-tech around town. Diners can now enjoy the outdoor patio, while impersonating a lobster thermidor under a broilerlike panel of overhead heat lamps. The six lamps, each 25 feet long and mounted to the steel-beamed roof, emit gas-powered, infrared heat.
“The heaters are super hot,” acknowledges marketing director Heather Nicholas.
Given the popularity of its patio, installing such a powerful heating system was an absolute necessity for River City Roll. “The outdoor dining piece is a huge part of why we are able to stay open, even though we’re just scraping by,” Nicholas says.
Perhaps as seriously as it takes its heated patio, this Scott’s Addition adult bowling alley, despite its “barcade” vibe, doesn’t play around when it comes to the food. Everything here is familiar, only better.
French fries ($9), anointed by truffle oil, get dusted with shaved egg yolk and Parmesan for added nudges of umami. Harissa-sauced wings ($12) have a spicy Tunisian twang that leaves me questioning my allegiance to the all-American Buffalo wing. And flaunting about with a far more ephemeral crunch than your typical chickie sando is their version of a fried chicken sandwich ($10), its performance only elevated by piquant high-kicks of flavor from some pickled cukes and hot sauce.
Longoven, 2939 W. Clay St.
Longoven’s garden patio in Scott’s Addition — with its Scandinavian-meets-Sonoma wine country design aesthetic — seems to have evolved as effortlessly as the change of seasons. Last I wrote about it, as summer was winding down, the patio was an elegant, wood-paneled box with no lid. In September, a latticed roof frame magically appeared above the patio, sheathed in clear corrugated plastic and raised slightly to allow air to flow through.
Behind the scenes, the decision to build that roof meant closing Longoven for several days and spending thousands of dollars, eating into half a month of the restaurant’s operating capital. But for a restaurant that was no longer offering indoor dining, it was worth the effort.
“August was extremely wet. We lost a lot of business in August. And so we finally made that commitment for the long haul just to get a covering on it,” owner Patrick Phelan says. “Looking back on it now, I wish I would’ve just done it from the beginning.”
Despite these changes, one thing holds true: the Longoven patio’s power to charm the thermal socks off diners. Every table gives diners the sensation of being nested in their own private alcove, framed by lush foliage. Twinkling garden lights are strung in clean, Nordic lines above them.
And wonders never cease when it comes to the food at Longoven. With an approach both masterful and imaginative, Phelan and co-chef and owner Andrew Manning conjure a silken custard out of sunchokes ($15), combining elements of a Japanese chawanmushi and au gratin potatoes. The custard is sprinkled with a heady gravel of fried ginger and garlic and crushed hazelnuts and gossamer shavings of smoked pumpkin and black truffle.
These wizards of modernist cuisine also transfigure dendritic heads of maitake ($14) by grilling the mushrooms until they’re nearly as smoky as the bark on a slab of barbecued brisket, then floating them atop a seawater dashi steeped with kombu. And a cluster of raw, juicy oysters ($16) is transformed, swirled in a snowdrift of cream made from sweet Hakurei turnips and swept up by a strong, iridescent undercurrent of X.O., a Cantonese-inspired chili sauce fortified with salty dried shrimp and scallop and specks of prosciutto.
It’s hard to say whether outdoor patios will sustain various restaurants and diners alike through the coldest winter months of the pandemic.
Glass, for one, remains optimistic. “If last winter was any indication, I think it’ll be fine,” he says. “And if we catch a ‘cold’ winter, how long does that cold snap stick around for? I don’t know, three weeks, four weeks. We can survive three or four weeks.”
Other owners, such as Giavos and Phelan, are less definitive about the future. “At some point, it’s going to get cold — when you run to your car in the morning — it’s going to get that cold,” Phelan says. “I imagine in the months to come, we’ll challenge what ‘too cold’ actually means to somebody.”
Another question looms: What will happen to these winterized outdoor patios once the pandemic is over? Some restaurants have been authorized to operate patios only temporarily on adjoining sections of city sidewalks and parking lots. And it’s unclear if they will have to remove those patios — into which they may have poured thousands of hard-earned dollars — when all is said and done.
“It’s a Catch-22,” says Giavos, about investing in an outdoor patio. “I don’t want to do too much and, when this is over with, I’ve got to pull down $30,000 worth of stuff because the city won’t allow me to keep it.”
For now, with restaurant dining completely upended by the pandemic, the option of dining outdoors in any capacity feels like a blessing for everyone involved. And the best any of us can do is persevere — to don our warmest coats, our chunkiest sweaters, our longest long johns and our thickest socks and simply order the stiffest drinks on the menu.
Justin Lo writes freelance reviews for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram @justinsjlo.