Is patio dining the future of restaurants?

Some say it’s always patio season in Atlanta—and, with COVID-19 concerns plaguing indoor dining rooms, they could be right

Lazy Llama Cantina Atlanta
A Lazy Llama customer described its patio as the first truly organized outdoor dining he’s encountered.

Photograph by John E. McDonald

Three weeks after Governor Brian Kemp allowed Georgia restaurants to resume dining-room service, Lazy Llama Cantina’s patio almost felt like an escape from the thought of the coronavirus—though there were a few notable reminders. In restaurants statewide, no more than 10 customers are allowed per 300 square feet of public space, which here includes both a covered and uncovered patio in addition to the indoor dining room. Some inside tables had no chairs and were marked “X” with blue masking tape, a reminder that they’re off limits. But on this day in mid-May, there were no customers sitting inside the Midtown restaurant.

Patricia Parajon and Stephen Gubelman live within walking distance of Lazy Llama. Since the coronavirus hit Georgia, the self-described “avid patio diners” say they’ve been uncomfortable eating on the patios of many of their favorite Midtown restaurants, which they describe as “free-for-alls” where diners consume carryout food without any social-distancing enforcement. Gubelman says Lazy Llama’s patio is the first truly organized outdoor dining experience they’ve encountered during the pandemic.

“When we walked up, they told us it would be about 15 minutes to be seated,” Gubelman says. “And we appreciated that, because I feel like they’re putting our safety first.”

Parajon has a sister who’s an ER nurse at a metro Atlanta hospital and a brother who owns a restaurant in Athens. “So, I see both perspectives, from people saying, ‘stay home, stay back’ to people saying, ‘hey, you’ve gotta get back in the game and support local businesses.’ You just have to make sure they’re taking the necessary precautions—and here, they were.”

Gubelman says he’ll stick to patio dining for the near future. “Maybe it’s just a subconscious thing, but being outside in the sun and having a constant flow of air makes me feel better,” he says, “whether it actually has anything to do with keeping me safe or not.”

Boxcar Atlanta
At gastropub Boxcar, customers order at the window and sit at safely distanced outdoor tables.

Photograph by John E. McDonald

It’s not just perception; patio dining carries less risk than eating indoors, according to Dr. Andreas Handel, an associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at University of Georgia’s College of Public Health. Handel—whose work includes modeling and data analysis for infectious and communicable diseases such as flu, norovirus, tuberculosis, and COVID-19—says precautions such as extra spacing between tables and only seating groups who’ve been social distancing together also help.

“We’ve seen reports where indoor circulating air led to transmission, meaning that the six feet of distance doesn’t help if [the virus] gets sucked into the air conditioning and circulates throughout the whole room,” he says. “That danger seems to not exist outside, unless there’s a really heavy breeze going through.”

Dr. Handel says that whether you eat indoors or outside, though, there risk of spreading the virus through touching objects such as menus and silverware remains. And, unfortunately, restaurant workers who come into contact with multiple people during their shifts have a higher likelihood of exposure and of further spreading the virus. There’s also the concern that employees who can’t afford to take sick days might not speak up if they know or suspect they’ve contracted the virus.

“I think everyone has their own risk-benefit calculations they’re making in their head, asking if it’s worth it,” Handel says.

French-Vietnamese restaurant Le Colonial in Buckhead is trying to further minimize some of the risks Handel described. When it first reopened in May, it only seated guests in its two outdoor dining rooms. (It later opened its indoor one for limited service.) Le Colonial also offers disposable menus and requires daily temperature checks for staff. “We have learned consistency is key,” says general manager Jake Guyette, who points out that the restaurant is adamant about “enforcement of new policies to keep guests and staff safe.”

“My gut is that restaurant dining is not going back to normal for 12 months.”

When interviewed in May, Kraig Torres, owner of gastropub Boxcar in West End’s Lee + White development, wasn’t yet ready for service to fully return to his balcony patio, let alone his indoor dining room. “I’ll be honest; I’m not comfortable with having one of my servers reach across a table of potentially sick guests for a plate. I’m not putting our team in the line of fire.”

Boxcar instead offered “dine out” service, in which guests order limited menu offerings like the Vagabond fried chicken sandwich over the phone, at a to-go window, or downstairs at Torres’s Lee + White location of Hop City, his chain of craft beer shops. Customers then could sit down at well-distanced outdoor tables on the patio and throughout the Lee + White compound. Torres even created a new staff position: a chaperone he calls the “lifeguard,” who gently reminds patio diners to adhere to safety guidelines.

“You want someone friendly but a little bit assertive,” Torres says. “They can’t be shy; you have to be polite and firm.” (Editor’s note: Boxcar closed for nine days in June after an employee tested positive for COVID-19. It reopened on June 13 with limited seating and carry-out.) 

Boxcar Atlanta
Kraig Torres, owner of Boxcar

Photograph by John E. McDonald

The demand for outdoor dining these days is only going to increase, says Sean Yeremyan, who owns Lazy Llama with his wife, Becky. “We’re lucky because all of our restaurants have pretty large patios and garage doors, which open up [the indoors] to the outside.”

The Yeremyans’ other two restaurants have the option to expand their outdoor seating even further. The couple owns Hobnob locations in Dunwoody and Brookhaven—cities that now offer special permits allowing restaurants to add more outdoor tables, even on sidewalks and in parking lots.

“We have to be patient with our businesses and let them figure out what works for them, their employees, and customers,” says Dunwoody Mayor Lynn Deutsch, who aims to create a safer restaurant experience for customers and a greater volume of business for beleaguered restaurant owners. “There’s gonna be a lot of evolution over the next few months as the situation changes.”

Yeremyan says the three new restaurants he and his wife are planning to open before 2021—a Hobnob in Atlantic Station and another in mixed-use Forsyth County development Halcyon, where they’re also launching a steakhouse called Cattle Shed Wine & Steak—will have garage doors and patios as well. “The more outdoor space you have,” he says, “the safer people are gonna feel.”

Still, the reality is that restaurants have fundamentally changed, and patio dining is not the sole economic cure for an industry battered by COVID-19. Torres, who also owns Alpharetta restaurant Barleygarden in the Avalon mixed-use development, says revenue from patio business at Boxcar amounts to less than 20 percent of typical business. “My gut is that restaurant dining is not going back to normal for 12 months,” he says.

And while he embraces the additional safety precautions, he clearly misses the good old days. “It’s a more dangerous minefield than ever,” Torres says. “It used to be easy.”

This article appears in our July 2020 issue.