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How Restaurants Literally Stay Warm in Winter

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Investigating the vestibule, the (maybe) illegal structure keeping out the cold

Mike Pont/Getty Images for Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

When you walk into New York City’s landmark Tribeca Grill in the dead of winter, you may not even notice one small but important detail: You’re instantly warm thanks to a strong heater inside an enclosed foyer. “The aesthetic of walking from the cold into a warm restaurant is a nice thing, so we blast that thing in the cold weather so people know right away it’s nice and hospitable,” explains owner Drew Nieporent.

It’s just one element — so tiny that it’s often an afterthought when designing a restaurant — but winterization can change a dining experience. Nobody wants to sit too close to the door in a drafty restaurant, shivering through the cold gusts of wind that blow in every time someone crosses the threshold. There’s good reason that’s one of the worst seats in the house.

But certain aspects of restaurant design can save diners from that fate. They’re the unsung, or mostly unsung, heroes: a foyer, heavy drapery, a revolving door, a machine that blows warm air down on you as you enter, or a narrow vestibule erected on the sidewalk during the winter season.

Some cities prefer one style over others. Those acrylic and vinyl vestibules have often been a fascination in New York City, where they’re ubiquitous, but you’re not likely to see many in, say, Toronto or DC. But why? How do restaurants strategize against the cold weather?

New York City’s obsession with vestibules

New York City restaurants pretty much willed sidewalk vestibules into existence in the 1990s. Usually about the size and shape of a phone booth, you’ll find these steel-framed spring-door vestibules bolted to the doorway of every other restaurant in the wintertime. Some might have clear vinyl windows or heating elements, but they’re all essentially tiny way stations to capture the wind before you enter a restaurant. This bastardization of awnings and canopies became such a phenomenon that New Yorker writer Ian Parker profiled them in 2005. Lawrence LoIacono, president of the Bronx-based Acme Awning Company, told Parker that an Upper East Side restaurant had ordered the company’s first winter vestibule and others quickly followed suit.

New York now has a vestibule season,” Parker wrote. “There comes a point in the year… when LoIacono answers his phone and expects to hear a restaurant owner ask him about a cold-weather vestibule. LoIacono typically advises the restaurant owner not to order a vestibule; and then the restaurant owner orders a vestibule.”

LoIacono tried to discourage restaurateurs from using vestibules because he didn’t think they were particularly effective or exactly legal. Both were reasonable concerns. An outdoor vestibule may not do much to shield diners from a cold blast of air if both the outer canvas door and the inner restaurant door open at the same time. And there’s some question about where a restaurant’s property rights end and public space begins. “For the life of me, I don’t know how the city allows this,” Nieporent says. “I don’t know the legalities of it. But you see them everywhere.”

So why are New York’s restaurants so taken with canvas vestibules? As with most small-bore design elements, space and price are key. Anwar Mekhayech, a partner in the Canadian firm DesignAgency, says vestibules built into a restaurant space are far more efficient and attractive than the makeshift sidewalk versions. Yet they’re easily 10 times the price — sidewalk vestibules average about $2,400, while interior renovations can cost around $20,000 — and they take up valuable square footage that small restaurants need for tables. Losing one table space in a small restaurant means losing money.

But while those price and space considerations might be tempting for restaurants everywhere, there’s one last factor that makes this such a New York phenomenon: the city doesn’t seem to care. Jay LoIacono, vice president of Acme Awning Co. and Lawrence’s brother, tells Eater that the city allows vestibules to take up sidewalk space so long as they’re removed in the spring. In other words, restaurants construct them because they can get away with it, and they’re constructing them as steadily as ever. Acme manufactures 20 to 30 new vestibules a season. “I think they have become part of the landscape today,” Jay LoIacono says.

Local laws play a role

Few cities outside of New York allow restaurants that same luxury. Two years ago, in its own written appreciation of the winter vestibule, the New York Post noted the astonishment of one Twitter user in Toronto upon spotting a vestibule outside of the city’s Momofuku outpost. “IS THIS GONNA BE A THING NOW?” the tweet asked.

It was not going to be a thing. Though some restaurants do have temporary vestibules, local sidewalk obstruction bylaws are far too stringent for them to flourish. Mekhayech, whose firm designed Momofuku in Toronto, says they were able to build a vestibule because the restaurant is set back from the actual sidewalk — the vestibule is on the restaurant’s own property. But that’s rare. “I don’t think I could name 10 places that have them in Toronto,” Mekhayech says. Most restaurants with the money have built-in vestibules instead.

This is also the case in Washington, D.C. Lauren Winter, who leads the design firm Edit Lab at Streetsense, says the city now actually requires any new (or newly renovated) commercial space over 3,000 square feet to have a vestibule for energy efficiency. There also has to be seven feet of space between inner and outer doors to reduce the likelihood that both might open at the same time. There’s still room to play around, though; Winter and her restaurateur husband Sebastian Zutant are planning an enclosed vestibule with an open door and a curtain for their upcoming wine bar.

But restaurants everywhere have to keep in mind one very important regulation when they’re designing an entrance: the Americans with Disabilities Act. Winter points out that built-in vestibules are generally more wheelchair-friendly than outdoor vestibules, which tend to be short and narrow. Even some of the heavier drapery solutions can be difficult to push past. (Jay LoIacono at Acme says the doorway to each vestibule has to be large enough for a wheelchair to pass through; the only issue with ADA compliance is if a restaurant has a step leading into its threshold.) Mekhayech and Winter agree that an ADA-compliant heated built-in vestibule is the best solution — if you can afford it.

Functionality, price, and aesthetics

Choosing a winterization technique is ultimately a trade-off that depends on each individual restaurant and its owner. Restaurateurs have to figure out how much money and physical space they have available for fighting the cold weather, then look for the most efficient solution that fits within those parameters. And, for some, aesthetics matter, too.

In Philadelphia, seasonal vestibules are nearly as popular as they are in New York for very much the same reasons: they’re the most effective option for a restaurant that doesn’t have the space or the money for a built-in vestibule. But Kate Rohrer, founder of Rohe Creative, writes in an email that while vestibules are the main solution Philly restaurateurs are seeking, she’d rather steer them away. “[P]ersonally I feel they’re rather unsightly,” she writes. Storefront entrances are designed to be pleasing to the eye — why ruin that?

Instead, Rohrer has turned to luxe draperies in projects like the city’s red-hot Double Knot. “It provides a soft element upon entering, works with the aesthetic yet [is] still functional,” she writes. Curtains take up almost no space, cost only as much as a restaurateur wants to spend, and project plushness if done well. They can also be easily removed in the warmer months. But, as Winter points out, drapes have a way of leaking cold air as they’re constantly pushed aside. “It’s not the Arctic blast that you usually get, but it definitely gets into the space,” she says.

Another strategy is to combine one of these solutions with an air curtain. These slim machines, installed over a threshold, blow a downward stream of air to block out cold (they’re also good for keeping out insects). Winter says that the combination of a fully enclosed vestibule and an air curtain is the most efficient winter solution, energy-wise. But this time the trade-off is aesthetics. Mekhayech says air curtains are one of his pet peeves. He wouldn’t want to have air blown down on him upon entering a restaurant. “It’s such an industrial feel,” he says.

One of the most effective strategies for beating the cold air is one that’s rarely used anymore: the revolving door. Nieporent is a particular believer in the supremacy of the revolving door, which acts as an airlock, but recalls a decade-old argument with the designers of Nobu 57 over the bank-like aesthetics. “[D]esigners are a little like chefs,” he says. “They do what looks nicer.” But Winter — who likes revolving doors — points out that they’re also expensive and require a fairly large entranceway to meet ADA requirements. Still, she thinks they could come back into fashion if energy regulations continue to tighten.

Does it matter?

All that said, winterization is hardly a priority for restaurateurs or their architects. Sure, when a restaurant is being built or renovated during the late fall or winter, a restaurateur is likely to bring up the issue. As Winter notes, those owners notice chilly air seeping into other restaurants and want to make sure their own restaurant doesn’t repeat the same problem. But when a restaurant is being built in the spring or summertime, it’s not even on the radar.

That’s perhaps to a restaurant’s own peril, though. “It’s an important detail that gets easily overlooked or done wrong when it’s done as an afterthought,” Mekhayech says. He points out that this is how restaurants become notorious among diners for being so cold they have to keep their jackets at the table or will hold out on the waitlist for a table away from the door. Providing warmth in the winter is very much a part of hospitality. To that end, Nieporent has another unconventionally conventional solution for dealing with the cold: “You have to serve a nice, hot soup.”

Amy McKeever is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.
Editor: Erin DeJesus