Al Fresco Dining’s Allure | Food Newsfeed
Courtesy of Hard Rock International

Al Fresco Dining’s Allure

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By Connie Gentry March 2013 Chef Profiles

Dining at its finest is found in dramatic outdoor settings that simply cannot be replicated within the confines of a walled and roofed structure. Even the most opulent interior design fails to achieve the splendor of a desert sunset, and no amount of indoor originality can compare to the liberating rooftop view of a cityscape or the simple pleasures of dining alongside a gently lapping river.

“People relax more when dining outside—there’s a freedom that even the most spacious dining rooms can’t achieve.” says Jimmy Schmidt, executive chef of Morgan’s in the Desert, the exclusive restaurant in California’s legendary La Quinta Resort.

He also observes that people linger longer in outdoor settings “to enjoy the environment,” as if dining is the entertainment of the evening rather than a prelude to the next event.

Whether diners actually eat heartier in an outdoor venue he can’t say, but “one thing is for sure,” he quips, “they drink heartier. Beverage sales are definitely higher on the patio than inside our restaurant.”

There is no denying the allure of alfresco dining—for diners as well as for restaurateurs. But outdoor dining also brings unique challenges, most often related to unpredictable weather, staffing decisions, and reservations management.

At Morgan’s, the challenge is the desert climate: “Morgan’s is a dinner-only restaurant and the temperature drops significantly at night,” says Schmidt. “Especially since the busiest season and the nicest time to dine outside is in the winter, spring, and fall. Keeping temperature in the food is critical—so that’s the biggest challenge.”

As executive chef at Morgan's in the Desert, Jimmy Schmidt brings his James Beard-award winning talents from his Rattlesnake Club restaurants in Denver and Detroit to California's Coachella Valley. Describing desert dining, he says: "The colors of the food are better in the natural setting; and when the sun is setting you have this beautiful soft light—the whole environment glows."

Fortunately, Schmidt is as much food scientist as culinary artist, so he selects china that can stand up to higher temperatures. “If you put hot food on a cold plate, the plate is heavier and draws all the heat out of the food—so china must have a thermal value to maintain heat. Also, you have to be aware of all this stored thermal energy in the plate that’s going to continue to cook the food.”

But he cautions that a plate doesn’t have to be incredibly hot to continue cooking—and many foods are better served rare or cooked to a medium temperature. His solution: Cook fish and meats “just a hair under” the desired temperature so that when the diner gets the plate the food is perfectly cooked—including any heat absorbed from stored energy in the plate.

“You have this thermal [conundrum] going on, especially in outdoor dining,” he continues. “You want the food to arrive hot and be perfectly cooked—but it may actually finish cooking right there in front of the guest.”

Morgan’s serves food until 11:00 p.m., so by that hour the desert has cooled considerably and diners appreciate the fire pits and heaters located within the terrace. “Solar heat builds up in the stone patios during the day and radiates warmth into the evening,” Schmidt adds. “It’s not like being by a body of water where the cool winds come in and make it even [colder] when temperatures drop at night.”

Weathering Inclement Conditions

Climate control is an issue for every outdoor dining venue—and even more so in less temperate regions like the Pacific Northwest or Great Lakes, where dining al fresco is typically an unexpected luxury.

“Outdoor dining creates unique opportunities and great curb appeal,” says Scott Ponchetti, director of operations for Hard Rock Café’s Southwest region, which includes eight locations (all but one with an outdoor venue). Although his territory encompasses sun-drenched locations in Hawaii and southern California, one of the most impressive outdoor settings is in Seattle.

“The Seattle Hard Rock Café has an amazing rooftop space in a market that doesn’t have many outdoor-dining venues because of its reputation for inclement weather,” says Ponchetti. “Our rooftop provides a unique experience with beautiful views of Pike Place Market and the Puget Sound. When the lights are on at night and the music is playing, even the rooftop location has curb appeal.”

Open from mid-March to November, Ponchetti says revenues on the rooftop are primarily from alcohol but a full menu is available. “Most people are surprised that there is almost no rain in Seattle during the summer months,” he says. “We set up a grill on the rooftop and prepare seafood or hamburgers, almost like a clambake on the beach; and we’ve even hosted weddings on the roof.”

Crowds flock to restaurants with premium locations in urban markets. Bridge House Tavern claims the catbird seat on Chicago's river corridor. From 5:00 p.m. Friday through Sunday, Bridge House Tavern expands its outdoor setting with a second-story lounge—courtesy of an arrangement with the American Bar Association, a flagship tenant in the space above the restaurant.

In his estimation the biggest challenges are service-related: “Outdoor spaces are often farther from the kitchen so you need your better people serving and working those settings.” And in markets where it’s difficult to predict the weather, Ponchetti says the biggest thing is staffing decisions—how many servers to bring in when the weather is questionable.

Chicago is another city where—when the weather cooperates—al fresco dining is all the rage, especially when augmented by a central location on the city’s river corridor. The Bridge House Tavern claimed the waterfront catbird seat and, since opening in May 2011, has been voted the No. 1 outdoor-dining spot in Chicago by Open Table, and was the only restaurant in the Midwest to be ranked among Open Table’s 2012 Top 100 outdoor dining venues.

Ryan See, co-owner, attributes success in large part to the premium location. “We have 120 feet of boat dock so people can pull their boats right up to the restaurant,” says See. “The restaurant has exceeded our expectations from a numbers standpoint—and also exceeded our patience sometimes because 65 percent of our seating is outside, making it a very difficult space to manage from a labor-cost perspective. We go from a 65-employee restaurant in the summer months to a 20-employee restaurant in the winter. That makes it hard to adjust labor costs, which is our biggest frustration.”

Even in the summer months, Chicago’s unpredictable climate makes it impossible for Bridge House Tavern to take reservations for outside seating—an operational letdown since the outdoor space more than doubles the restaurant’s seating capacity.

“We adjust to inclement weather by playing meteorologist—nobody watches the Doppler radar more than I do,” says See. “But we can’t take reservations for outside because people would get upset; they can request outdoor seating but it is a pure first-come, first-served policy.”

Still, the numbers are impressive: On an average Saturday in the summer, Bridge House Tavern serves upwards of 500 people vs. an average of 150 people in the winter when they are limited to the 65-seat indoor space. The outside terraces are open from St. Patrick’s Day to November, and when temperatures turn chilly they simply whip out the space heaters and blankets (for “ladies whose legs get cold,” See explains).

Adaptable Reservation Policies

While restaurants in the South may average more sunny days throughout the year, volatile weather patterns still impact reservation policies for al fresco dining. Shawn Cirkiel, chef/owner-operator of three restaurants in Austin, Texas—Parkside, a predominantly indoor restaurant with an exterior patio; Pizzeria, which adjoins Parkside; and Olive & June, a southern-based Italian restaurant with seating evenly divided between the interior and a three-level exterior constructed around a massive oak tree—acknowledges he pays “a whole lot of attention to the weather” since opening Olive & June in February 2012.

Olive & June in Austin, Texas, (like Chicago's Bridge House Tavern and California's Morgan's in the Desert) ranks among Open Table's Top 100 Outdoor Dining experiences, based on nearly 5 million restaurant reviews in 2012. The three-level outdoor component of the southern-based Italian restaurant is built around an ancient oak tree that shades diners from the intense summer sun. The beautiful setting more than compensates for the occasional falling acorn or foraging squirrel.

“Half of our seating is outside so we had to adapt very differently from Parkside in terms of how we organize and accept reservations,” says Cirkiel. “We are very clear about where reservations are for and, unless we know the forecast is going to be sunny, we don’t take outdoor reservations. At Parkside we can book 300 reservations because the tables will turn two or three times in a night. But at Olive & June we are more careful and not as aggressive with reservations. We can seat 150 including inside and outside, but we only take reservations for 200 people instead of 300—and then if the weather is good we can do more.”

The outdoor environment also has an impact on service and training requirements. Cirkiel advises operators need to be very aware of this and organize accordingly. “Service must be faster; we have work stations outside so we can get the food out faster and food can’t be left sitting on trays,” he says. That’s not only to control the temperature of foods served, but also to protect food from would-be dinner crashers.

Olive & June Crostini with mozzarella, tomato, and basil (above). Shawn Cirkiel, chef/owner-operator of Olive & June (bottom left). from Olive & June: Sgroppino-vodka, prosecco, a scoop of seasonal strawberry sorbetto, and mint garnish (bottom right).

“Our servers always have to be aware of things that can interfere with the dining experience, such as acorns falling from the tree into a diner’s drink or squirrels,” notes Cirkiel. “And we have to be very proactive about keeping opossums from the food since they follow squirrels up the tree.”

Opossums may be the exception for most restaurateurs—but pigeons and other pestilence are standard stalkers for outdoor dining in large cities. Mosquitos and insects are a given in the summer months, and See says pigeons can be very aggressive at Bridge House Tavern. “They know when eating times are and they will walk right up to the tables.”

Despite challenges of pest control, unpredictable weather, and extreme climates, restaurant operators appreciate the added value that outdoor spaces bring. And both Chef Schmidt and Chef Cirkiel say they definitely like outside dining better than inside.