As COVID-19 cases spike, outdoor private dining is on the rise—for those who can afford it.

By Maria Yagoda
August 03, 2020
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In mid-June, I ate dinner on a spacious porch at Chatham Bars Inn, a resort in Cape Cod, my table topped with treasures like Portuguese-inflected stuffed clams, local oysters, and a punchy kale salad sourced from the property's nearby farm. While the novelty of open-air eating felt invigorating, and the tables were spread out generously, I still felt somewhat uneasy: about being in the (distanced) company of strangers after three months of speaking exclusively with my plants.

Credit: Chatham Bars Inn

Several yards away, I spotted an idyllic and empty lawn, with a couple of wooden tables under string lights that looked out onto the ocean; this is where the resort holds its increasingly popular private dining option. The space makes a romantic substitute for the sort of elevated restaurant experience that may never exist again, or at least not for a long time, as indoor dining remains in flux.

All you need is a field, farm, or vineyard, and a dining public willing to splurge on private experiences. This summer, the Chatham Bars Inn Farm, which is located a few miles away from the resort, launched a series of farm dinners—the first two took place in July—that are sold by the table. Each table hosts a maximum of six people, who can dine surrounded by farmland while eating ingredients sourced just feet away. (The cost is $990 per table including a four-course dinner, wine, tax, and gratuity.)

Credit: Chatham Bars Inn

Executive Chef Anthony Cole says that they plan on adding more of these dinners to the calendar for 2021, after receiving such positive feedback from guests and locals. "Given the changing government restrictions surrounding indoor and outdoor dining, guests are looking for a change of scenery and an escape," he said. Each private dining experience can be customized, with 25 acres of outdoor spaces to work with on the property.

Isolated private dining experiences have grown immensely in popularity this summer, for the lucky operations that have the space and financial stability to orchestrate such a pivot. City chefs have decidedly less to work with, which is why many of those with the name recognition and funds have organized pop-ups in rural settings. This July, Daniel Boulud launched a pop-up in the Berkshires, as Manhattan's Café Boulud remains closed. Called "Café Boulud at Blantyre," the chef has 110 scenic acres on which to serve people food.

Credit: Chatham Bars Inn

SingleThread, one of the most critically acclaimed fine-dining restaurants in the country, has relocated to vineyards. The Sonoma County restaurant's "Summer Wine Dinner Series" is served entirely outdoors in the vineyards at Kistler's Trenton Roadhouse—marking the first time that chefs Kyle and Katina Connaughton have transplanted their three-Michelin-starred cooking to a new setting. The pop-up began on Saturday, August 1, and will run through the end of September. (A 10-course menu is paired with single-vineyard wines, priced at $375 per person, and there is a private dining option for 6 to 8 guests, at $425 per person.)

After months of delay due to the coronavirus pandemic, the highly anticipated Kentucky restaurant Barn8 finally opened—amid the setting of 683 picturesque acres. In addition to accommodating diners in its outdoor dining space, chef Alison Settle is selling takeaway picnic dinners for guests to enjoy on picnic tables spread across the grounds. (They're also offering private farm tours and tastings.) The socially distanced nature of the picnic has proved popular for Chatham Bars Inn as well, where the kitchen prepares a basket of New England favorites for guests to take and eat wherever the hell they want.

Space, of course, is a luxury. According to some estimates, without federal aid, over 75 percent of independent restaurants will close by the end of this year. The Local Economic Impact Report, released in late July, found that 60 percent of the restaurants that temporarily closed due to the pandemic have since shuttered for good.

Many out-of-work cooks and restaurant workers do not have the option to flee to greener pastures, which is why many have pivoted away from restaurants, creating their own side hustles and eschewing the traditional hospitality model altogether—whether posting dishes on Instagram for purchase or delivering meals from a home kitchen.