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Outdoor Dining in Winter? Head to the Restaurant Yurt

The ceiling in the shed I’d been told to step into was so low I had to stoop. The walls, made of raw, unpainted wood and foam insulation board, were too close together for me to extend my arms more than halfway. All the light came from a bare bulb plugged into an extension cord. There was one small window next to the door, which was the only way in or out. Rain dripped from a leak in the roof.

In ordinary times, being led into a room like this might make me think: Will anyone hear me if I scream?

But this is January of 2021 in the plague-stricken city of New York, so I looked around and thought how lucky I was to have found a nice, safe place for dinner.

The shed, in the backyard of a Brooklyn ramen shop named Samurai Papa, is one of the small, private dining structures that some restaurants rely on now that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has banned indoor dining in the city again and the night air has made unprotected outdoor dining too cold. This is the winter of the yurt, the time of the tiny house, the season of the space bubble, the hour of the hut.

As a class, the ramen shed and its cousins are certainly outnumbered by the other major architectural solution that restaurants have turned to this winter, the enclosed porch. Enclosed porches may be built against an exterior wall, or may stand on their own in the street or on the sidewalk. They tend to hold several tables kept at least six feet apart or separated by a partition, under orders from the state. Nonetheless, when you dine in an enclosed porch, you share the air with your neighbors.

An enclosed porch does not have to be a virus trap. Leaving windows open at least six inches and shutting doors just halfway can bring in more fresh air than you’d find in a typical indoor dining room, said Linsey Marr, a professor in engineering who studies airborne viruses at Virginia Tech. Still, “individual dining structures are better,” Dr. Marr said, although she also noted that she would dine inside one only with “people from my own household.”

In most private sheds, there is just enough room for a single table, usually a two-top or a four-top. You don’t have to share the air with strangers outside your party. Assuming nobody at your table has Covid and the space is adequately aired out between seatings, a shed is a reasonably safe place to eat. It can be relatively safe for the restaurant’s employees, too, if their time inside the shed is kept to a minimum. But eating in a box slightly larger than a coffin takes some getting used to.

“We have a warm bubble waiting for you,” said the host when I showed up for a reservation at Café du Soleil, a casual French place on the Upper West Side. The cafe has pitched about a dozen clear, toaster-shaped plastic tents along Broadway. Inside each one is a table surrounded by woven, all-weather French cafe chairs. There are a few bar-height chairs out in the open between the tents, where strings of lights dangle overhead along with garlands of French and American flags. The whole sidewalk has the look of a French pavilion at a very small space-themed world’s fair from the 1960s.

The host unzipped one flap of my tent so I could step inside. It had been repaired by tape, which ran down one long seam. The bubbles are prone to tearing, one restaurateur who’d experimented with them told me.

I barely noticed the tape once I’d been seated and started in on a Vesper. Café du Soleil was having a special on mussels and fries that night, and I got a pot of those and began pitching the empty shells into the cast-iron pot lid and listening to the conversations of people around me, who were closer than would have been allowed had we not been sealed up in our space bubbles. It wasn’t quite the same as sitting elbow to elbow at a busy bar, but it was as close as anything I’ve done since March.

The clear, shiny plastic warped and blurred the colored lights. After a few gulps of gin, I had the sensation of having taken a very small dose of a very mild hallucinogen while wearing somebody else’s prescription glasses.

Bubble tents like those at Café du Soleil weigh very little. This is an asset when you’re pitching one, but a drawback in high winds, when they have a tendency to take flight. Greenhouses assembled from kits, with aluminum frames and clear, hard polycarbonate windows, are more durable and stable.

I got my first taste of greenhouse dining at HotHouse Fort Greene, which has built eight of the structures in a small pedestrian park in front of the restaurant, and plans to construct seven more by the weekend. (Black Forest Brooklyn, a German restaurant around the corner, has set up 10 of its own in the same park.) I ordered a can of pilsner and a plate of hot chicken at a counter inside and was shown to my “cabin.”

The sun was shining, but the air inside was not quite as warm as the term “greenhouse effect” would suggest, so I turned up the electric space heater sitting on the table.

Then the server opened the door and handed me a tray of fried chicken. Once I’d taken a bite, I knew the space heater wasn’t going to be necessary. The chicken’s crust was bright orange with ground chiles and other spices. I spent the next 10 minutes gargling beer, wiping sweat from my face and removing layers of clothing. If you ever need to take off half your clothes in a hurry, I’d recommend against doing it in a small glass box in the middle of a city park.

In a phone call a few days later, Craig Samuel, an owner of HotHouse, said that so far this winter the night air had been warm enough that the space heaters had no trouble keeping up. “I’m not a fan of global warming,” he said. “But I am a fan of outdoor dining in January.”

I enjoyed a little more privacy when I ate at Lilia, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, one of three restaurants in the city and another 10 around the country where meals are served inside canvas yurts provided by American Express, only for customers who use one of its cards.

The yurts huddle together on the tip of Lilia’s triangular lot, covered in undyed fabric and connected by wooden walkways. Inside, they are simple and uncluttered, with slate-gray fleece blankets draped over the backs of stainless-steel-and-suede dining chairs. Suspended from the conical peak of each yurt is a fixture shaped like a flying saucer that gives off both heat and light.

The overall effect is as if an eco-resort somewhere in the Olympic Mountains had been transplanted to Brooklyn.

It’s big step up in style and sophistication from the “Cool Hand Luke” hut where I ate ramen. Then again, the bowl of ramen cost about $10 while fixed-price, family style dinners in Lilia’s yurts that start with antipasti and finish with roasted chestnuts cost $125. Crown Shy, in the financial district, has its own yurt village; the price of a fixed-price dinner there depends on the reservation time, and starts at $125.

At Lafayette, a French cafe south of Astor Place, I had dinner in one of the prefab greenhouses on the sidewalk. It was almost roomy. The interior was decorated with paper snowflake sculptures, tabletop trees made of white feathers, metallic silver wreaths and dangling plastic icicles; a sheepskin, or facsimile thereof, is draped over the firewood ring that sits next to the electric fireplace. It’s how someone who’s never been north of Yonkers would picture winter in the country.

On East 65th Street, I ate in a private dining booth on the sidewalk outside Daniel. With red- and white-striped curtains, the booths look like dressing cabins on a Mediterranean beach. The menu, incongruously, is in deep-winter mode. But the mismatch doesn’t matter when you’re faced with Daniel’s pot au feu, the most thoughtfully articulated pot roast in the city, after months of cooking for yourself at home punctuated by some casual summery sidewalk meals that might as well have been served in plastic baskets. (Some of them were.)

Dinner costs $125 at Lafayette and Daniel, too. Such prices were rare over the summer, when outdoor dining spaces were often hammered together overnight. Some restaurants invested in the nicer models of patio umbrella, and some spent more money on tropical plants, but essentially one outdoor setup looked a lot like the next.

That has changed as restaurants have moved from patios to shelters. A shelter can be furnished, and with furnishing comes a return of some of the markers of class and taste that had been leveled over the summer. Sunshine is free. Interior design costs money.

I don’t begrudge any restaurant charging $100 or more for a sidewalk seat in January. The pandemic has gone on so long, and so little has been done to help the hospitality business. I only wish more sponsors — corporations, business improvement districts, block associations, even governments — would buy and build more cabins, greenhouses and so on. This would not just be lending a hand to an industry that, incredibly, keeps being asked to make new sacrifices, while getting almost nothing in return; it would also be an investment in public safety.

Once a restaurant sets up its yurts or greenhouses, though, it probably needs to change the instructions it gives to servers. The advantage of waiting on people in a small structure is that you can hand over a plate or clear an empty glass quickly, without needing to step into the space and breathing the inside air for very long. Servers don’t get this advantage, though, if they’re asked to check in, refill water glasses and perform all the other minutiae of service as if there weren’t a pandemic going on.

Servers at Lafayette and Daniel, of all the places I’ve visited, spent the most time checking in. At Daniel, they usually leaned into the cabin before I had a chance to put my mask on. At Lafayette, servers would pause at the greenhouse door while I masked up, but then they invariably stepped inside each of the dozens of times they stopped by.

In fairness, there is very little government guidance on any of these issues. And I doubt it’s possible for either restaurant to bring server contact down to something like the single fried-chicken handover at HotHouse.

For Covid safety, the combination of fresh air and masks is hard to beat. This is why my favorite cold-weather dining structures are the kotatsu at Dr Clark, in Chinatown. The restaurant built eight kotatsus on Bayard Street in October, and has just finished putting in seven more.

Following a centuries-old template, these low tables are equipped with a heater under the table surface and a thick fitted blanket; once you’ve taken your shoes off, you swing your feet under the table and drape the blanket across your lap. The upper half of your body sits in a shelter that uses diagonal slats to cut the wind without stopping air flow. Imagine sitting in an outdoor hot tub with your clothes on, but without getting wet.

Now imagine that you are also eating chilled sea urchin and jingisukan, marinated lamb seared on a tabletop griddle that is supposedly modeled on Genghis Khan’s helmet. This calls for a cocktail, followed by sake. Or maybe shochu. They’re gone too quickly, but Dr Clark has Japanese whiskey, too, and, who knows why, a respectable collection of mezcal by the copita.

Soon they’ll want the table back. That’s fine. We’ve got all winter.

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