The outdoor dining experience at Millwright's Restaurant and Tavern was born of necessity, but one of the restaurant’s owners and its lead chef, Tyler Anderson, doesn’t want it to feel that way. “We want to create this oasis at Millwright’s that’s sort of this place you can get away from it all,” he says.
To that end, visitors will dine at tables, more than 6 feet apart, under stringed lights along a bridge or beside a wooded area that both overlook the cascading waterfall of The Mill at Hop Brook. They will experience a four-course $45 prix fixe menu that will change frequently and features exclusively locally grown ingredients, with the exception of items like salt and oil.
Safety will also be paramount. The strenuous protocols enacted by the restaurant include requirements that staff undergo temperature checks and complete an online ServSafe certification for COVID-19 in addition to strict mask and social-distancing requirements. “Our No. 1 priority right now is to stay open, and if people get sick at restaurants they’re going to shut us down,” Anderson says.
Millwright’s, like hundreds of restaurants across the state, has launched its outdoor dining program on the fly this spring. Due to COVID-19, restaurants were required to close in March for everything but takeout. Beginning on May 20, onsite dining resumed for outdoor diners only. Even when interior restaurant dining is permitted again — as of early June, industry leaders were pushing for an earlier reopen date than Gov. Ned Lamont’s June 20 target — it will be with limited capacity. That, paired with the lingering fear many will have of spending extended periods of time in inside spaces with other people, means that outdoor dining must be successful for many restaurants to survive. Even with outdoor dining resuming, surviving won’t be easy for many restaurants. Many in the industry estimate that more than 30 percent of restaurants will close as a result of the pandemic. If that grim prediction holds true, it won’t be for lack of effort or creativity on the part of Connecticut restaurant owners.
At Fire at the Ridge, the restaurant at Powder Ridge Mountain Park & Resort in Middlefield, visitors can dine outside the restaurant or get a picnic meal that they can enjoy on the mountain after a free ride up the ski lift. Mykonos Mediterranean Restaurant in Newington has set up clear igloo enclosures around each of its tables to keep diners isolated from other patrons. In Danbury, Gaudí Tapas and Wine screened a drive-in movie on Memorial Day.
Municipalities across the state sped up the permit process for allowing outdoor seating and some towns have closed certain streets to traffic to give restaurants more room to operate in accordance with social-distancing rules. In Ansonia, Mayor David Cassetti and his staff brought applications for outdoor dining permits to restaurants on Main Street. They also set up barriers so that cars could not park close to sidewalks in front of restaurants where diners will need space. Cassetti intends to shut down Main Street later this summer.
“My plan is probably on a Saturday night from like 3 to 10 to shut down Main Street, giving restaurants enough time to set up and break down, and people to enjoy themselves for a few hours,” he says. “I’m hoping to keep that going through the summer, maybe every other weekend.”
In Chester, Grano Arso, which was named Restaurant of the Year by the Connecticut Restaurant Association in 2019, has set up seating for 35 people in what was formerly a parking lot. The safety procedures both in the kitchen and in outside dining areas were designed by Lani Gargano, a nurse by training, who owns the restaurant along with her husband, Joel Gargano.
“Once you’re a nurse you’re never not a nurse, and I think this particular situation kind of allowed me to fine-tooth-comb the whole operation to see where we can improve and provide safety measures,” she says. “I literally put myself in the shoes of a chef, and I put out a chair in the kitchen, and I observed their motions and how they cook and how they prepped for several days.”
Ultimately, she put together safety protocols that exceed Chester and state guidelines. Joel adds that, while doing all this safety-wise, they haven’t forgotten the house-made pastas or standards of excellence that have earned Grano Arso much acclaim since it opened in 2017. “We feel like we’ve really been able to maintain Grano at its core.”
Though thinking ahead is not easy at this time, there is some indication that many of the outdoor dining spaces improvised this year may return next year, as beefed-up outdoor dining options was a trend before COVID-19. Anderson, from Millwright’s, plans on bringing back its outdoor setup next summer. He says he saw the potential of outdoor dining after he started running High George, a rooftop bar and restaurant at The Blake Hotel in New Haven. “A lot of outdoor spaces, they just sort of sell themselves,” he says. “Give people pre-packed hummus with carrot sticks and they will still come.”
But he doesn’t believe a nice outdoor space should be an excuse for poor-quality food, even in the midst of a global pandemic. “It’s no reason to sacrifice quality, no reason to sacrifice experience,” he says.