“We weren’t ready for what turned out to be the rainiest winter in a decade,” says LA restaurant owner Billy Silverman.
Rainfall may not be a game changer for most restaurants, but at Salazar, Silverman’s hit Sonoran barbecue restaurant, outdoor dining is pretty much the only kind of dining available. In fact, Salazar was designed expressly for eating al fresco: “I had never done a restaurant before, I’m never going to do another restaurant,” Silverman explains. “This was an idea I had, it’s a project: a sit-down, outdoor dining and drinking place.”
Salazar opened last May in a converted Mazda garage along the LA river. Long waits and acclaim followed, but Silverman hadn’t anticipated that sunny LA would experience record-breaking downpours, and while the rains were great for California’s drought, the restaurant struggled somewhat. “The fact of the matter is, most people, when it’s raining outside, don’t think ‘Let's go to Salazar,’” Silverman says. And now, winter is once again on the horizon.
It’s a predicament many outdoor restaurants face, especially those in places that regularly contend with changing seasons. At Brooklyn’s Parklife, diners order tacos, burritos, and nacho fries from an indoor counter run by the popular Taqueria El Atoradero, grab drinks from a bar built into a repurposed shipping container, and eat their meals in the mostly outdoor dining area. But, it’s hard to embrace ~park life~ when it’s cold or raining, and while the restaurant can usually seat 185 people, without the yard, that number drops to 65.
“When it rains, there’s really not much we can do, so we just have to take those hits as they come,” owner Scott Koshnoodi says. Fluctuating business isn’t unexpected — the cost of Parklife’s rent actually accounts for the fact that outside square footage isn’t as valuable as space that’s usable all year round. “You can’t use that [outdoor space] for three months out of the year, so that’s how we work around it as business owners,” he says.
This winter, Parklife will enclose the trellis that connects the indoor portion of the restaurant with the larger outdoor area, similar to the way New York City restauranteurs enclose their entrances with vestibules in the winter. The goal is to make Parklife a “cozy, comfortable, and attractive spot when it’s 30 degrees and below.” But, Koshnoodi knows that a drop in business is inevitable with the wintertime loss of much of Parklife’s space, and he’s planned for it. Koshnoodi, who also owns the Parklife-adjacent performance space Littlefield, will extend his events expertise to Parklife with trivia nights and speaker series so that there’s “something to come to instead of it being just a place to get food and drinks.”
At Salazar, Silverman is also thinking about ways to make the restaurant more comfortable for the winter, and plans to install fire pits and heaters.
However, there are some outdoor restaurant concepts for whom staying open through the winter just isn’t an option. Toronto backyard burger spot Madame Boeuf and Flea closes for the winter, Brooklyn barbecue hangout Pig Beach simply shuttered during the cooler months before it acquired a brand new indoor space, and Grand Banks, a New York City restaurant on a wooden schooner, is
“Everyday I wake up and think about the weather,” says Grand Banks owner Alex Pincus. Even during summer months, operating a restaurant on a boat presents challenges. More than actual moment-to-moment weather, cell phone weather apps are predictive of whether or not it will be a good day or a bad day for Grand Banks, which debuted in the summer of 2014.
Regardless of what the app says in the morning, the crew gets ready for service. “Even on a day it rains, there’s still a good chunk of the day that’s a nice day,” Pincus explains. And the restaurant’s waterfront location means that although rain has the power to end a meal, it won’t happen unexpectedly. “You actually get to experience being in nature,” Pincus says. “When a storm is coming, you see low clouds on the horizon.” Those diners that remain by the time rain falls can huddle under the boat’s awning to wait out a storm.
With heaters, awnings, and planned activities, the owners of outdoor restaurants can try to overcome the everyday pitfalls of outdoor dining to bring about steadier business. But, Salazar’s Silverman really has just one request for this winter in LA: “Hopefully, it won’t rain every other fucking day.”