Winter is coming. There's no getting around the fact that patio season as we know it will soon come to an end, and with it the opportunity for diners to enjoy the warm weather on expanded restaurant and bar outdoor eating areas, while COVID-related indoor dining capacity remains restricted to 50 percent or up to fifty people (with some exceptions).
Coloradans are a hearty bunch, braving the elements at the Beach at Arapahoe Basin for burgers and beers during ski season, dancing the night away at the annual Icelantic Winter on the Rocks at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, and tailgating in the most miserable conditions before Broncos games. But what about a romantic dinner for two under the stars in January, or cocktails with friends during an outdoor Sunday brunch when the wind cuts through your sweater quicker than the first Bloody Mary cuts through the haze of your hangover?
A drive through Denver's many neighborhoods and restaurant zones reveals that most businesses are still in summer mode, with misters going full blast; umbrellas, tarps and open-sided tents deployed to provide shade; and the occasional patio heater on hand for those evenings when temperatures dip into the 50s. But some businesses are already getting creative in order to keep guests comfortable outside this winter, taking advantage of the City of Denver's one-year extension of its expanded outdoor seating program, which now allows bars and restaurants to spill out onto parking lots, lawns, sidewalks and traffic lanes through October 2021.
And they may have to get very creative: Larger outdoor seating areas could end up being considered indoors for capacity purposes under recently released guidelines from the Colorado Department of Health and Environment. According to those rules, open-sided tents are considered outdoors, as are tents with two opposite sides open; the only limit on diners would be dictated by social distancing rules. But add a third or fourth side, and a tent becomes indoor space, subject to the same capacity limitations as a dining room.
To help restaurants survive a long winter, the State of Colorado and the Colorado Restaurant Association, along with several other organizations, have teamed up to support the creation of additional outdoor dining spaces to expand capacity. The Let's Take This Outside program has two parts: The first is a charrette/design workshop on October 19, kicked off by Governor Jared Polis, at which state and public officials, as well as architects, engineers, designers and restaurateurs, will be divided into teams and charged with coming up with new ideas for outdoor dining concepts. The second is a restaurant grants program that will help fund the buildout of approved designs. Xcel Energy has already pledged to donate $500,000 toward the Colorado Restaurant Association Foundation, and up to another $250,000 (depending on matching donations) for the Colorado COVID Relief Fund.
So restaurants are working hard to make their outside areas look hot, hoping that diners will embrace the Norwegian concept of friluftsliv — love of the outdoors, even (perhaps especially) in winter.
At My Brother's Bar (2376 15th Street), which has only been seating customers outdoors all summer, a few odd-looking structures have popped up in what was previously a parking lot. Wooden decks with clear-plastic geodesic bubbles each hold a cocktail table surrounded by four chairs. The bubbles may become a little steamy inside during warm weather, but built-in heating will keep them cozy in the winter. A bigger tent with room for four groups of four is reminiscent of a Rockwell-era Boy Scout campground, but it's furnished with full-sized tables, chairs and rugs, so at least you'll be able to enjoy your jalapeño cream-cheese burger with a pint or two of beer in comfort all winter.
Annette (at Stanley Marketplace, 2501 Dallas Street, Aurora) has created a dozen or so greenhouse-type structures for outdoor dining. The greenhouses, made with clear plastic over metal frames, resemble oversized Monopoly houses and hold one table each, allowing for maximum comfort and minimum contact with other diners. They'll have portable heaters, too, for when temperatures start to dip. Annette closed for a few days at the start of the month to make final preparations before reopening on October 9 with the greenhouses ready for diners.
In the Ballpark neighborhood, ViewHouse (2015 Market Street) has erected a greenhouse-like structure on its street-level patio, complete with a high ceiling for good air circulation and a giant TV at one end for sports viewing. Reservations are recommended if you want to score one of the indoor-outdoor tables, and food is served until 11:30 p.m., thirty minutes after Denver's current last call. You can also do brunch in the tent starting at 10 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
Just a few blocks away, the Denver Central Market (2669 Larimer Street) is getting ready to winterize the parking-lot seating that's been under open-sided tents all summer. Those will be replaced with a bigger tent with closable sides; natural-gas heaters will keep the space warm. A stone hearth is also being brought in to add an alpine-lodge vibe, but it's not an actual working fireplace (which we'd love to see). This one turns out to be a stage prop, albeit a realistic one that only needs a bearskin rug to complete the look. Vintage chandeliers, carpets and holiday decor will also be added for a "winter wonderland" ambience, according to a spokesperson for the market.
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Stephen Julia, co-owner of Curio Bar inside the Denver Central Market, also runs Roger's Liquid Oasis, the bar at Edgewater Public Market (5505 West 20th Avenue, Edgewater) with his partners. He says the rooftop bar, complete with an Airstream trailer, will remain open as much as possible for comedy and music events this winter. Heaters and a fire pit will help keep conditions comfortable.
And that's just the start of the creative options we'll soon see popping up all over town as restaurants prepare for the winter months ahead.
Don't leave Denver's hard-hit hospitality industry out in the cold in the coming days: Dine outside when you dine out.