Out Is In

Though a trend pre-pandemic, area restaurants have increased their focus on alfresco options

On a Saturday morning in late February, the temperature hovered at a frigid 27 degrees, but that didn’t stop seven women from sitting on the expansive patio at Chelsea Tavern. Huddling under heaters and wearing mittens, they tucked into eggs Benedict at the downtown Wilmington restaurant.

While the ladies certainly fall into the diehard category, they demonstrate the enthusiasm with which Wilmington-area consumers have embraced alfresco dining. As a result, restaurants are improving — or creating — outdoor spaces to meet the demand.

Maker’s Alley in Downtown, Wilmington. Photo Photo Buccin-Pollin Group.

Admittedly, the trend existed before the COVID-19 pandemic. Consider the popularity of Constitution Yards Beer Garden, which opened on the Wilmington Riverfront in 2016. By 2019, those seeking a sip of fresh air could head to Torbert Street Social in Midtown Brandywine, which has a patio, and the $3.3 million Maker’s Alley, which boasts a 5,000-square-foot beer garden.

But in 2020, the pandemic led to the creation of more attractive outdoor dining spaces. Being in fresh air reduces the risk of contracting the virus, particularly when masks and social distancing are part of the equation. A patio — or even a sidewalk — gives restaurants more seating during capacity limits. “It’s been a little bit of a lifeline,” says Chris Low, director of northern operations for Big Fish Restaurant Group. 

However, supply versus demand has led to material continued from previous page delays. Compare it to the toilet paper shortage at the pandemic’s start.

buy them, it’s difficult,” agrees Joe Van Horn, who owns Chelsea Tavern in downtown Wilmington. “It took six to eight weeks to get heaters when you used to go to Home Depot and buy them.”

Chelsea Tavern on Market Street. Photo provided

Now that it’s March, expect to see more people flocking to decks, patios and porches throughout the area. Many will open early and close late in the year.

“I do think outdoor dining season will be extended for good — these heaters we’ve all purchased aren’t going anywhere, and a lot of folks have discovered it can actually be pleasant to eat outside late into the fall,” says Tyler Akins, chef-owner of Le Cavalier in the Hotel duPont.

“Our guests will probably also find that eating outside on a crisp March evening can be a great way to dine out,” he continues. “More than that, it is a lasting reminder to restaurants that at the end of the day, we’re in the hospitality business, and that means prioritizing guest comfort. We’re grateful outdoor dining has become a thoughtful way to enhance guest safety during uncharted times.”

Here are some examples of what you can expect to find this spring.

On the Christina River

Banks’ Seafood Kitchen + Raw Bar was famous for its riverside patio before COVID, and it was a preferred dining spot in 2020. Owner David Leo Banks has augmented the area with heaters — which he calls “Mighty Little” — and systems that circulate the air and discharge tempered air.

Constitution Yards on the Riverfront. Photo Buccin-Pollin Group.

Around the bend, Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant is bringing its patio seating closer to the waterfront to add more seats. An awning and deck enclosure should be ready by spring. (There are no changes to the Newark location.)

Nearby, Constitution Yards stayed open in winter with a heated tent. Movies and sports were featured in the “winter garden.”

Big Fish Grill, part of the Big Fish Restaurant Group, has offered outside dining since it opened. Guests can enjoy happy hour with a river view. 

“We’re truly looking forward to getting the patio reopened,” Low says. “We have a lot of outdoor heaters and new lighting, and we added a couple of bike stands so bicyclists can take a break and have some food, then continue with their ride.”

In the Downtown District

In 2020, Bardea Food + Drink went from having outdoor seats to creating a garden-like environment to installing a tent. Owner Scott Stein isn’t sure which direction Bardea will take in 2021, but there will assuredly be outdoor dining — and it will go beyond setting up tables and chairs, he says.

Makers Alley added fire pits, which along with heaters are the must-have accessories for a successful outdoor dining space. Just ask Van Horn of Chelsea Tavern, who created an architecturally interesting terrace in an old alley that abutted the building. There is a patio space where the adjoining building once stood, and Chelsea Tavern has tables and chairs out front.

The patio at Torbert Street Social. Photo provided

Stitch House Brewery, which has seating out front, installed open windows in the storefront to provide a seamless link between indoors and outdoors. The open-air flow will be an asset in warm weather.

But even in cold weather, people have wanted to sit outside at Le Cavalier in the Hotel du Pont. “We always planned on offering outdoor seating for the warmer months,” says owner Akin. “But the ongoing pandemic has definitely resulted in us expanding this offering throughout the winter with ample heating in place.”

Nearby Tonic Seafood & Steak now has outside seating for 20 on the restaurant’s bar side and 24 on the dining-room side. Both areas have heaters. The spaces are covered, but operating partner Paul Bouchard won’t add sidewalls because he wants the ventilation.

Torbert Street Social, part of Big Fish Restaurant Group, is bringing a TV into the mix to attract patrons to its patio. “We’re just going to make it fun and comfortable out there for our guests,” Low says. The establishment has been receiving awning quotes.

In Trolley Square and the Wawaset Area

Big Fish Restaurant Group owns BarRoja and the Trolley Square Oyster House, and both have popular outdoor spaces. 

At the Oyster House, tables and chairs have replaced the lounge-like seating. “We saw there was an increased demand for sit-down dining,” Low explains. “It’s the most desired area of the restaurant.” During cooler months, management put a tent over the second-floor deck and installed heaters.

Big Fish’s BarRoja closed when restaurants were limited to between 30% and 60% of the fire code capacity. However, the restaurant group is eager to reopen it and leverage the outdoor area, which has an outdoor bar, TVs and lounge area. “It’s a cool spot in Trolley that I think a lot of people don’t know about,” Low says.

Dew Point Brewing Co.’s live music space. Photo provided

These two Delaware Avenue restaurants are about to get some company. Dan Sheridan, who is also an owner at Stitch House Brewery, plans to move Locale BBQ Post from Wilmington’s Little Italy to the building formerly occupied by Scrumptious. The popular barbecue joint was featured on the Food Network show Diners, Drive-ins and Dive.

The new location has a generously sized courtyard. “We plan to use it as a huge attraction,” says Sheridan, who grew up in the area. This spring, he’ll concentrate on takeout and catering while building a full kitchen and bar and work on the courtyard.

Locale will shut down for two months in summer for a full redo. When it reopens, there will be a full menu focused on local products with a barbecue flair. Cocktails, wine and, of course, Stitch House Brewery products will be available. 

Like many restaurateurs, Dan Butler has tweaked his patio dining during 2020. The area is nestled between Piccolina Toscana and Toscana To Go. “What would be an afterthought pre-COVID is occupying our every moment,” he jokes.

Caffe Gelato in Newark. Photo by Jim Coarse

He started by tenting the area to expand the site. “It didn’t work,” he says. A dark tarp to cut the wind gave people the impression that the restaurant was closed. 

Now the covered area has a plastic barrier to block the breeze and heaters. Butler also installed lighting and a trellis. “People who don’t want to dine outdoors feel comfortable there,” he says.

To make guests more comfortable, Columbus Inn recently installed three greenhouses that seat from two to three people and a “bubble” that can seat up to four. The restaurant hopes to purchase one or two more greenhouses. Each has a heater, sliding doors and a vented roof.

Santa Fe Mexican Grill, which is also off Pennsylvania Ave., is weather-proofing and extending the patio at the Wilmington site to feature an indoor/outdoor bar area.

At Park Café in Wawaset, plans called for a pergola over the porcelain tile patio. But it did not take long for owners to add heaters. 

In the Burbs

City restaurants aren’t the only ones  increasing their outdoor options to provide a safe dining experience to guests. David Dietz didn’t waste any time when it came to enhancing BBC Tavern in Greenville. He’s been able to expand, enclose and cover his patio area.

BBC Tavern in Greenville. Photo by Pam George

Since the additional square footage is used only at night, it does not interfere with boutique operations. “At 5 or 6 p.m., it’s like a fire drill to put tables and chairs out,” Dietz says. Currently, he uses dining room furniture, but he’s purchased additional items to use once the indoor capacity restrictions are lifted.

On warm days, BBC now has the type of sliding doors you’d find in California or Florida. When they’re open, there is no door. An “air curtain” keeps the air conditioning from escaping and bugs from getting inside. 

Dietz bought three 80-amp heaters for cooler months and advertised that customers should BYOB — bring your own blanket. 

Sherpa-style blankets are for sale at Grain H2O continued from previous page in Bear, which sits on the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal. Fire pits, ordered in the fall, were delivered in February. The pits put out enough heat to “take the edge off — not enough to wear shorts,” says co-owner Lee Mikles.

The new firepits at Grain H2o. Photo provided

Grain Craft Bar + Kitchen in Newark has an outdoor fire pit and heaters on the patio.

Also on Main Street, Caffé Gelato has two high-profile greenhouses out front near the covered patio. Owner Ryan German plans to expand the garden-like seating area in front of the hotel under construction. He also added an awning out back. “We are going to decorate it; we’re inspired by the Brew HaHa! in Trolley Square,” he says.

Like its sibling in Wilmington, the Newark Santa Fe Mexican Grill is also extending its patio.

In Yorklyn, Dew Point Brewing Co. was the place to be last summer for live music and craft beers. The establishment created picnic “circles” on the lawn that were safely distanced from each other. The team is currently looking into short- and long-term solutions for the outdoor area, but they’re not ready to reveal any plans at present.

Certainly, they won’t be alone. As the pandemic stretches toward summer, outdoor options will give dining and beverage businesses a leading edge.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.