LACONIA — People throughout the Lakes Region and across the state will be able to do something starting Monday they have been unable to do for two months: Go out to eat.
Most restaurant operators are using this weekend to put the final touches on preparations for the beginning of outside dining, which they can start offering Monday under Gov. Chris Sununu limited reopening plan for parts of the state’s economy.
Patrick’s Pub & Eatery in Gilford is one many area restaurants gearing up for open-air dining. For owner Allan Beetle, this moment brings to mind Yogi Berra’s famous quote that, “It’s like deja vu all over again.”
“This is like when we opened this business 26 years ago,” Beetle said. “It’s the same excitement and the same stress.”
Some restaurants have rented large tents so diners can eat under cover. Others are using tables with umbrellas. Some are taking advantage of patios or decks they had built previously for diners who preferred to sit outside. Others had to create the space.
Because of continued health concerns over the coronavirus regulations that the restaurants must follow – include requiring staff to wear masks all the time, and patrons to wear them when going to or from their tables – tables will be limited to parties of six, and must be placed 6 feet apart. Conversation between parties at different tables will not be allowed.
Because patrons will be required to observe social distancing at all times — even while waiting for a table — restaurants are encouraging people to make reservations, or at the very least call ahead to find out when a table might be available.
Beetle called the regulations reasonable.
“They are a good step to getting us back open,” he said, adding that members of the restaurant’s staff will be enforcing those regulations.
"State and local officials were great to work with on this," he said.
Chris McDonough, who with his brother owns Fratello’s in Laconia and the Homestead restaurant in Bristol, sees outside-dining-only at a good sign, but hopes it is short-lived.
“We’re anxious to get indoor seating as soon as possible. It’s tough to see a restaurant sitting empty,” he said.
In the meantime, McDonough said that he is planning on two sittings per table at Fratello’s. The restaurant will have room for about 50 diners on an open deck on the restaurant’s second floor, plus tables set up in one area of the parking lot.
Local officials have been working with restaurants that need permits for those who are putting up tents.
Belmont Planning Director Dari Sassan said the town has tried to strike a balance between protecting public health during the pandemic and helping eating establishments “reopen to some level of business.”
He said his office, along with the town’s code enforcement officer and fire chief, have worked to expedite the process of issing necessary approvals.
Two places have obtained permission to put up tents for outside dining — J.J. Yolk, a breakfast and lunch place, and the Tap Public House, a sports bar which shares space with Brookside Pizza.
Laconia Planner Dean Trefethen said four places obtained tent permits — 405 Pub, Brickfront, Water Street Cafe, and T-Bones. He said one big reason tents require permits is because they need to be inspected for fire safety. He said in the instances of these four set-ups, inspectors also had to check to make sure that the tables met the 6-foot separation requirement.
Downtown restaurateur Reuben Bassett said his Local Eatery and Burrito Me have outdoor patios that will be utilized.
Burrito Me does a thriving takeout business, but Local Eatery is a sit-down restaurant and has a greater potential for benefiting from outdoor seating.
"We have a patio and are expanding that. We can have seating in front and in back of the restaurant. It's weather dependent, but we have a capacity for as much outdoor seating as indoor."
The demand for outdoor dining space has meant a surge in business for companies that rent and set up tents.
Lakes Region Tent and Event has installed seven tents in central New Hampshire in the past week, according to Dan Darling, the firm’s general manager.
Before the calls from restaurants, business was slow for the company, which rents tents ranging in size from 20-by-30 feet, to 40-by-60. In these cases, the tents cannot have side curtains.
Normally its workers would be busy putting up and taking down tents for graduations, graduation parties, and even some early season weddings. Those events have all been canceled.
Darling said on average the cost to rent a tent runs between $1,000 and $2,000 per week.
“It’s a huge investment,” Michael Campione, owner of The Tap, said of the cost to get a tent. “But we have to take the risk.”
Diners will see changes when they come back to their familiar eating places. The menus will offer a more limited selection of items. And quite likely the menus will either be disposable or laminated to make them easier to wipe off or sanitize. Some table items, like salt and pepper shakers, are either being replaced with individual packs or will be sanitized between each sitting.
And Beetle and Andrea Weeks, general manager of Hart’s Turkey Farm, pointed out that it will take servers longer for staff to set up a table for the next group of diners because of the more intense cleaning that will be required.
But Ken Choice, owner of Ellacoya Barn & Grille in Gilford, said he and his staff are working to make things as familiar as possible, including furnishing the tent with tables from inside the restaurant.
“We’re trying to re-create that atmosphere that they enjoy here,” he said.
The Looney Bin Bar & Grill in Weirs Beach is one place that will not be offering outside dining.
Owner Michelle Watson said she reluctantly made the decision after talking with her staff out of concern that a few patrons would refuse to abide by the restrictions and cause trouble.
“It puts the girls in an uncomfortable position,” Watson said of her staff.
Campione said because he feels some people are going to be itching to get out and eat and have a drink, he’s going to be keeping a close eye on how the first week goes at The Tap.
“Depending on how things go I may put a time limit on tables, or limit the number of drinks,” he said.
For Alex Ray, owner of the Common Man group of restaurants, which includes eight in central New Hampshire, outside dining is something many of his restaurants have not had previously.
However, starting Monday diners will be able to eat outside at the Town Docks and Lago in Meredith, the Tilt’n Diner, the Common Man in Ashland, and the Italian Farmhouse and Foster’s Steakhouse, both in Plymouth.
Outside dining is a gamble, as Ray sees it, because it is so weather dependent,
“The five enemies of eating outside are cold, hot, rain, wind, and mosquitoes,” he said with a chuckle.
As of Friday, Monday’s forecast was calling for rain, so Ray is keeping his fingers crossed.
But like others in the business, Ray is optimistic.
“It gets us back into the swing of things,” he said. “Up until now it’s like we’ve been operating without arms or legs. This is a good test.”