These days, strolling through downtown New York City, where I live, is like picking your way through the aftermath of a party. In many ways, it is exactly that: The limp string lights, trash-strewn puddles, and splintering plywood are all relics of the raucous celebration known as outdoor dining.
These wooden “streeteries” and the makeshift tables lining sidewalks first popped up during the depths of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, when restaurants needed to get diners back in their seats. It was novel, creative, spontaneous—and fun during a time when there wasn’t much fun to be had. For a while, outdoor dining really seemed as though it could outlast the pandemic. Just last October, New York Magazine wrote that it would stick around, “probably permanently.”
But now someone has switched on the lights and cut the music. Across the country, something about outdoor dining has changed in recent months. With fears about COVID subsiding, people are losing their appetite for eating among the elements. This winter, many streeteries are empty, save for the few COVID-cautious holdouts willing to put up with the cold. Hannah Cutting-Jones, the director of food studies at the University of Oregon, told me that, in Eugene, where she lives, outdoor dining is “absolutely not happening” right now. In recent weeks, cities such as New York and Philadelphia have started tearing down unused streeteries. Outdoor dining’s sheen of novelty has faded; what once evoked the grands boulevards of Paris has turned out to be a janky table next to a parked car. Even a pandemic, it turns out, couldn’t overcome the reasons Americans never liked eating outdoors in the first place.
For a while, the allure of outdoor dining was clear. COVID safety aside, it kept struggling restaurants afloat, boosted some low-income communities, and cultivated joie de vivre in bleak times. At one point, more than 12,700 New York restaurants had taken to the streets, and the city—along with others, including Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia—proposed making dining sheds permanent. But so far, few cities have actually adopted any official rules. At this point, whether they ever will is unclear. Without official sanctions, mounting pressure from outdoor-dining opponents will likely lead to the destruction of existing sheds; already, people keep tweeting disapproving photos at sanitation departments. Part of the issue is that as most Americans’ COVID concerns retreat, the potential downsides have gotten harder to overlook: less parking, more trash, tacky aesthetics, and, oh God, the rats. Many top New York restaurants have voluntarily gotten rid of their sheds this winter.
The economics of outdoor dining may no longer make sense for restaurants, either. Although it was lauded as a boon to struggling restaurants during the height of the pandemic, the practice may make less sense now that indoor dining is back. For one thing, dining sheds tend to take up parking spaces needed to attract customers, Cutting-Jones said. The fact that most restaurants are chains doesn’t help: “If whatever conglomerate owns Longhorn Steakhouse doesn’t want to invest in outdoor dining, it will not become the norm,” Rebecca Spang, a food historian at Indiana University Bloomington, told me. Besides, she added, many restaurants are already short-staffed, even without the extra seats.
In a sense, outdoor dining was doomed to fail. It always ran counter to the physical makeup of most of the country, as anyone who ate outside during the pandemic inevitably noticed. The most obvious constraint is the weather, which is sometimes pleasant but is more often not. “Who wants to eat on the sidewalk in Phoenix in July?” Spang said.
The other is the uncomfortable proximity to vehicles. Dining sheds spilled into the streets like patrons after too many drinks. The problem was that U.S. roads were built for cars, not people. This tends not to be true in places renowned for outdoor dining, such as Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, which urbanized before cars, Megan Elias, a historian and the director of the gastronomy program at Boston University, told me. At best, this means that outdoor meals in America are typically enjoyed with a side of traffic. At worst, they end in dangerous collisions.
Cars and bad weather were easier to put up with when eating indoors seemed like a more serious health hazard than breathing in fumes and trembling with cold. It had a certain romance—camaraderie born of discomfort. You have to admit, there was a time when cozying up under a heat lamp with a hot drink was downright charming. But now outdoor dining has gone back to what it always was: something that most Americans would like to avoid in all but the most ideal of conditions. This sort of relapse could lead to fewer opportunities to eat outdoors even when the weather does cooperate.
But outdoor dining is also affected by more existential issues that have surmounted nearly three years of COVID life. Eating at restaurants is expensive, and Americans like to get their money’s worth. When safety isn’t a concern, shelling out for a streetside meal may simply not seem worthwhile for most diners. “There’s got to be a point to being outdoors, either because the climate is so beautiful or there’s a view,” Paul Freedman, a Yale history professor specializing in cuisine, told me. For some diners, outdoor seating may feel too casual: Historically, Americans associated eating at restaurants with special occasions, like celebrating a milestone at Delmonico’s, the legendary fine-dining establishment that opened in the 1800s, Cutting-Jones said.
Eating outdoors, in contrast, was linked to more casual experiences, like having a hot dog at Coney Island. “We have high expectations for what dining out should be like,” she said, noting that American diners are especially fussy about comfort. Even the most opulent COVID cabin may be unable to override these associations. “If the restaurant is going to be fancy and charge $200 a person,” said Freedman, most people can’t escape the feeling of having spent that much for “a picnic on the street.”
Outdoor dining isn’t disappearing entirely. In the coming years there’s a good chance that more Americans will have the opportunity to eat outside in the nicer months than they did before the pandemic—even if it’s not the widespread practice many anticipated earlier in the pandemic. Where it continues, it will almost certainly be different: more buttoned-up, less lawless—probably less exciting. Santa Barbara, for example, made dining sheds permanent last year but specified that they must be painted an approved “iron color.” It may also be less popular among restaurant owners: If outdoor-dining regulations are too far-reaching or costly, cautioned Hayrettin Günç, an architect with Global Designing Cities Initiative, that will “create barriers for businesses.”
For now, outdoor dining is yet another COVID-related convention that hasn’t quite stuck—like avoiding handshakes and universal remote work. As the pandemic subsides, the tendency is to default to the ways things used to be. Doing so is easier, certainly, than coming up with policies to accommodate new habits. In the case of outdoor dining, it’s most comfortable, too. If this continues to be the case, then outdoor dining in the U.S. may return to what it was before the pandemic: dining “al fresco” along the streetlamp-lined terraces of the Venetian Las Vegas, and beneath the verdant canopy of the Rainforest Cafe.