When outdoor dining became the new norm last winter, restaurateurs scrambled to accommodate customers dining al fresco in the cold weather. Plastic igloos, yurts, and glamping-like tents sprung up just about everywhere. Restaurant owner Scott Spears even bought a school bus. He outfitted it with tables, parked it in front of his academic-themed outpost School House Kitchen and Libations in Olde Town Arvada, and reminded customers to keep the windows rolled down to adhere to the outdoor dining requirements. “The pandemic pushed boundaries, and we came up with crazy new ideas,” Spears says.

Last year’s experiments—everything from the hodgepodge of outdoor dining structures to on-the-fly takeout programs—were born out of pandemic necessity. And while COVID-19 is not yet behind us, restaurant and bar owners are now at a point where they’re asking: “What’s here to stay?”

So far, it looks like expanded outdoor dining and takeout liquor sales are continuing either indefinitely or semi-permanently for the next several years, and that’s causing restaurant owners to rethink business—again.

But the solutions aren’t totally straightforward. Spears is reminded of this when he looks at the school bus-turned-dining room that’s now parked in his backyard. It’s almost too literal; a symbol of “just rolling with it” during unprecedented times. The bus might make another cameo in front of his restaurant. But Arvada is moving forward with semi-permanent street closures, and, with that investment, a more cohesive look for its outdoor dining venues is in order—an effort that, yes, would probably make the school bus obsolete but, overall, is a big win for restaurants and diners, Spears says.

Here’s a look at the pandemic dining rules and initiatives that are here to stay, and how they are redefining the restaurant experience in and around Denver.

Outdoor Dining Becomes More Permanent

Outdoor dining helped keep many restaurants afloat during the height of the pandemic when indoor dining restrictions were in place. Now, some of the programs that allow for expanded seating outside are gaining some permanency.

Arvada will keep its Olde Town street closures until May 2026, with two blocks of Olde Wadsworth Boulevard and a section of Grandview Avenue closed off to vehicle traffic.

“It has such a nice feel,” says Spears, who also owns So Radish, a vegan concept. “You can enjoy a nice meal outside. It’s quiet, it’s clean, you don’t have the exhaust from cars. Everyone is really loving it.”

In Denver, city officials have announced a permanent outdoor dining program that allows businesses to apply for permits to use private and public space for outdoor dining after the existing temporary program ends in October 2022.

The temporary program was first created in May 2020 to streamline approval and permitting processes so that restaurants could expand and adhere to social distancing guidelines. To date, 373 Denver restaurants and bars have participated, according to Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s office. The announcement of making the program permanent opens up the possibility for some of the city’s favorite blocks—like Larimer Square—to become permanently redefined as car-free dining destinations.

Coloradans have always enjoyed eating outdoors, says Jennifer Jasinski, the James Beard Award–winning chef behind Larimer Square concepts like Rioja and Bistro Vendôme. But she and other restaurant owners say there’s a segment of diners who still aren’t comfortable eating indoors since the onset of the pandemic, and they’ve become even more accustomed to bundling up to dine in the elements.

Jasinski’s dishes—plates like seared striped Baja bass with brown butter sabayon at Rioja—are best enjoyed in a dining format, whether that’s outdoor or indoor (just preferably not to-go), so she’s cheering for outdoor dining to stick around in this larger capacity.

“As a chef, putting food into a to-go box that would be jostled around in a car zapped the love out of it for me,” she says. Takeout has been a small share of business for her concepts.

Earlier this year the Colorado Restaurant Association (CRA) published a survey that found nearly three in four respondents were in favor of an outdoor dining expansion program. Restaurant owners, after all, have made significant investments in outdoor dining equipment, like fire pits and portable heaters in addition to structures like greenhouses.

Still, outdoor dining poses unique challenges that need further solutions, says Dave Query, the chef-owner of Big Red F Restaurant Group. In addition to cities determining how to recoup parking spots, propane for heaters is an added cost for an industry that already runs on thin profit margins. An expanded outdoor dining footprint means servers have a larger radius to cover, which compounds persistent staffing shortages. Then there’s the bicyclists and skateboarders who have posed wipe-out hazards for servers carrying plates of food out the doors and to the streets, says Query, who runs Jax Fish House, Centro, and West End Tavern on a closed-off block of Pearl Street in Boulder.

Takeout Alcohol Continues to Be a Boon

During the pandemic, Gov. Jared Polis issued an emergency executive order that allowed restaurants to sell cocktails and liquor to go. Then, he signed a new law last summer extending restaurant alcohol takeout and delivery until July 2025.

The to-go alcohol allowance has been a bright spot amid an otherwise tumultuous time for the restaurant industry, Query says. At Centro, for instance, he can send tacos out of the kitchen with palomas, margaritas, or cocktail kits. “It’s certainly helped us,” Query says. “It allows us to deliver the party, not just the food.”

The new booze law has also given way to new concepts: For instance, the first-ever, zero-seat bar to receive a liquor license has officially arrived in Colorado. Scratch Kitchen, a delivery-and-takeout-only collection of clean-eating restaurants, opened in spring 2020. The idea for the virtual food hall had been in the works long before the pandemic, so it was mere coincidence that it opened at a time when delivery and takeout was really taking off. But Takeaway, an on-demand takeout bar and the latest concept in the Scratch Kitchen family, is a pandemic-spun arm of the business that entered the scene because of the new law allowing alcohol delivery.

With a five-mile delivery radius to 13 zip codes and an option for pick-up, Takeaway began taking its first orders for cocktails this month, with offerings like elderflower gin and tonics, pineapple-jalapeño margaritas, as well as hard kombucha, beer, and wine. “We’re giving you a bar experience at home,” says Scratch Kitchen co-founder Michael Joseph.

The pandemic has redefined so much of the dining landscape. Some changes seem fleeting, like QR code menus and COVID-19 surcharges. But open-air dining and take-home drinks? It’s hardly the last call.

Brittany Anas
Brittany Anas
Brittany Anas is a Denver-based food and travel writer.