As soon as the first snowflakes fell in New York City on Monday, restaurateurs knew what was on the way.
Deborah Williamson, the owner of James, in the Prospect Heights area of Brooklyn, said that right now about 50 to 70 percent of her customers are choosing to eat outside. But by January and February, she predicted, “it’s going to be a whole different matter.”
“I’m kind of prepared for just about anything, and we’ll just kind of take it and do the best that we can as we move along. But I do think it’s going to be challenging,” Ms. Williamson said.
As New York faces its second winter with expanded outdoor dining, a ban on propane heaters has been reinstated by Mayor Bill de Blasio, and the newly discovered Omicron variant is raising concerns about group activities like eating out. Gov. Kathy Hochul declared a state of emergency last Friday.
New Yorkers’ desire for outdoor dining will be tested, said Andrew Rigie, the executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance. Compared with this time last year, he said, there are already fewer people eating outside.
One reason may be that diners can now eat indoors, unlike last winter, when dining rooms were closed. Still, Mr. Rigie is hopeful that overall, this winter will be better for restaurants.
“Throughout the winter and into the future, outdoor dining is going to be a critically important part of the restaurant industry, both for small business owners and customers,” he said. “This year, with indoor dining being open, it’ll be a test to see how customers decide to dine: outdoors versus indoors, or a combination.”
Indoor dining may be safer this year than last year, because guests must present proof of vaccination and about 70 percent of New Yorkers have been fully vaccinated. But renewed concerns about the spread of the coronavirus — cases, hospitalizations and Covid-related deaths in New York City have risen slightly, with an average of 1,459 new cases a day — could also steer diners to the outdoor seats, where ventilation may be better.
Some restaurants are working to outfit their outdoor-dining structures to make them as warm as possible without propane heaters, which are more powerful than electric heaters.
In October, citing fire-safety concerns, Mr. de Blasio reinstated a ban on propane heaters that had been temporarily lifted to allow outdoor dining through last winter. To help restaurants cope with the ban, $21 million from the city’s Department of Small Business Services is being distributed in $5,000 grants to businesses in the Open Restaurants program whose 2019 revenues were less than $1 million.
“Outdoor dining has helped restaurants through existential challenges and made our city more vibrant,” said Mitch Schwartz, a spokesman for the mayor’s office. “But making this program permanent means making it safe in the long term. The city will give restaurants all the tools they need to protect staff and diners while making a smooth transition away from propane.”
But in November, Keith Powers, a City Council member, and Mayor-elect Eric Adams, who takes office Jan. 1, urged Mr. de Blasio to end the ban, saying in a letter that “many diners still prefer the safety of outdoor dining to dining indoors, and restaurants are still struggling financially to recover.” Mr. Powers introduced legislation on Nov. 23 that would allow propane heaters in the city this winter.
Kavin Lam, 25, who lives on the Lower East Side, prefers to eat outdoors, where he said there is more space and fresh air, and it is usually quieter. When he goes out to eat with friends, he notices that the others all want to be seated closest to the heat.
“I’ve always ran pretty hot, just as a person,” Mr. Lam said. “I would wear flip-flops through January. It’s really not too much of a lift for me after walking out the door to be sitting outside.”
Zach Shufro, 26, who lives and often eats out in Greenwich Village, said he also prefers to sit outside, to reduce the risk of exposure to Covid-19.
“I ate outside last winter at some restaurants with friends, and they always had heat lamps,” he said. “It was pretty comfortable, even in January and February. I have friends from Florida wearing a big puffer jacket, and they’re perfectly fine sitting outside when it’s 32 degrees out and windy.”
But Ms. Williamson of James restaurant said running its electric heat lamps is a significant expense. “I always tell our team it’s like the equivalent of trying to run an air-conditioner outside in the middle of summer,” she said. “It pulls an incredible amount of energy. It’s not going to have the same effect as a propane heater would.”
At Saint Theo’s, in the West Village, a partner in the business, Robert Goldman, said the restaurant is retrofitting the outdoor dining space with a heating and cooling system.
“We think it is here to stay — or that is what we hope the city ultimately decides — so we are basically building a guesthouse with big windows and the other features you also see in the main dining room,” he said.
Nowon, which opened in the East Village in November 2019, has modified its outdoor dining space three times since first building it in the summer of 2020. New to the outdoor space this winter are four private dining areas — equipped with windows, lighting, call bells, a door and electric heaters — each of which can seat four to six people. Even with the new setup, the restaurant will lose 10 seats that are not shielded from the cold.
Nowon’s chef and owner, Jae Lee, said that last winter the restaurant had heaters in an open outdoor-dining patio, but it was “way too cold,” and the restaurant closed in January 2021 for a month.
“We all needed a break,” Mr. Lee said. “But, this winter, I’m feeling way more confident with indoor dining and seeing how the outdoor patio rooms are working out right now. All the guests seemed very happy with that. Plus, with the booster shots being available to everyone, I feel even more confident in that regard.”
While some restaurants are outfitting their outdoor structures to keep diners comfortable, others are shying away from the investment, leaving only the most determined diners to eat outside.
Dame, a Greenwich Village seafood restaurant that started as a pop-up in 2020 and opened full time in June, has an outside structure but is “not big on outdoor dining for the winter,” said the co-owner, Patricia Howard.
“We really believe that our restaurant is best experienced indoors with our soundtrack and candles, and we have an open kitchen, so there’s a lot of energy in our small space,” Ms. Howard said. “We’d rather people just wait to eat inside.”
Ms. Howard said that offering winter outdoor seating makes sense for some restaurants, but that Dame can’t afford to bring the atmosphere of their dining room to the outdoors.
“If we had an infinite budget to build another restaurant outside, and properly heat it, and build walls, and buy fancy lights to create the same kind of ambience that we have indoors, and have proper speakers and electricity to have nice heaters and stuff, I think then it would be a different question,” Ms. Howard said. “But, we’re a very small restaurant so that doesn’t make sense for us.”
An unenclosed outdoor area will be open, but diners need to be prepared to sit in the cold. In November, Dame started its first walk-in Monday, for diners without reservations. Even though it was a very cold day, “tons of people were willing to eat outside,” Ms. Howard said.
Some diners are simply undeterred by the elements, Ms. Williamson said.
Last winter, she saw people dining outside in the middle of a snowstorm, bundled up with a blanket next to the heaters, with a hot toddy in hand.
“They came with the hat and gloves and they’ve got their coat on, and we’re doing our best to keep them as warm as humanly possible,” Ms. Williamson said. “They kind of make an adventure of it.”
A version of this article appears in print on , Section
of the New York edition
with the headline:
Last Winter, Diners Froze. This Year, They Choose.. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe