Austinites love their patios — they’re pretty much built into the DNA of the city’s restaurant scene. Now, with major limitations on indoor seating and general social-distancing requirements resulting from the novel coronavirus pandemic, patios have become essential to the survival of restaurants, since outdoor dining is considered less risky than indoor dining.
With that in mind, Eater took a closer look at how seven Austin restaurants have adapted to the health crisis by adding patio space and slightly altered services. For restaurants without patios, such as North Austin coffee shop Barrett’s and East Austin Mexican restaurant Nixta Taqueria, expanding outdoor seating was a natural transition. Others without already suitable alfresco areas — like Neapolitan pizzeria Bufalina and fine dining establishment Jeffrey’s — had to apply for temporary permits through the city of Austin. The new Shop the Block program allows businesses to convert adjacent sidewalks, parking spaces, streets, alleys, or travel lanes into temporary new patios, thereby expanding their dining capacities. Either way, new dining areas mean new service parameters, so things may feel a little different for returning patrons.
Back in September, after receiving a Shop the Block permit, Neapolitan pizzeria and wine restaurant Bufalina owner Steven Dilley pulled tables out of the dining room for outdoor service. The setup comprises six tables adorned with the familiar white-and-red-checkered tablecloths separated from the street by several planters. The full menu of pizzas, sides, desserts, and wine is accessible using QR codes at each table, and diners pay via check brought out by a server. The reservations-only seatings are limited to three two-hour blocks per night (5:30, 7:30, and 9:30 p.m.) through Tock. Masks are required until parties are seated. Takeout is still available throughout the day.
East Austin Mexican restaurant Nixta Taqueria has debuted not one, but two patios. First, there’s the new backyard space along East 12th Street, which appeared in August, and then its already-existing side gravel-lined covered patio and bar along Cedar Avenue, which finally opened for service in September. For the larger lawn space, co-owners chef Edgar Rico and Sara Mardanbigi aimed for a “no-fuss, no-frills old Austin” vibe, with six bright and shaded picnic tables, string lights, and a pair of lush planters (“It feels like you’re in a friend’s backyard,” says Mardanbigi). QR codes are available at each table for ordering the full array of tacos, tostadas, cocktails, and natural wines, or customers can pay over at the pre-existing outdoor bar (though no cash is being accepted). Seating is first come, first served all day on weekends and weekday evenings, with plans to extend to all-day hours throughout the week in the near future.
For the first time since 1975, Clarksville fine dining classic Jeffrey’s is offering outdoor dining. Its new patio, permitted through Shop the Block, took over the restaurant’s valet area and was completed in October. Six white-tablecloth-covered tables and red chairs (for a nice pop of color) are bordered by a simple yet elegant wooden fence and a row of trees in planters. String lights adorn the restaurant itself. It’s meant to convey a sense of patio normalcy, as if it were always there. General manager Chase Layton says the aim was to give the seating area the casual feel of Jeffrey’s indoor lounge space.
Everything from the regular menu is available outside, which means, yes, people can pair that porterhouse steak with one of Austin’s stellar sunsets. To equalize the experience within and without, patrons may now order dishes previously only available at the lounge bar (including the dry-aged prime wagyu burger) and happy hour specials throughout the patio space. Menus are printed on recyclable paper, the 750-bottle-strong wine list is accessible via iPads sanitized after every use, and payment is completed through a QR code provided on each check. Three of the six tables are reservable for three two-hour blocks per night (5, 7, and 9 p.m.) by call-ahead reservation only, with the remaining three tables available to walk-ins.
North Austin micro-roastery Barrett’s Coffee managed to avoid the crush of citywide dine-in service closures back in March by immediately switching to walk-up window service. In the meantime, it completed its new back-patio buildout while putting two additional tables out front over the summer. Founder Travis Kizer says it was designed to feel like “an oasis” hidden from the nearby high traffic flow, a shaded chill zone of four brightly painted picnic tables atop AstroTurf, surrounded by plants and marked by the occasional pink flamingo reminiscent of Pee-Wee Herman’s iconic front lawn. After picking up some freshly pulled espresso, pour-over coffee, cold brew, or house-roasted beans, customers can settle on the patio, replete with extended Wi-Fi, power outlets, and USB charging stations.
Usually, Korean food is meant to be enjoyed with a group around a table featuring a built-in grill, so when North Shoal Creek restaurant Korea House moved its tables outside in September, emulating that DIY experience was the biggest challenge. Co-owners EJ and CK Kim pulled it off by adding portable grills, brought out to diners at any of the six tables, which face a serene, oak-shaded garden and pond, conveniently already a fixture of the space. If operating a grill feels daunting, don’t worry — servers are trained to provide easy instructions and, according to the owners, customers have reported that cooking their own food makes it taste that much better. Patio dining is strictly walk-in, first come, first served.
Central District Brewing
Nestled on the cozy downtown corner of East Fifth and Red River streets, Central District Brewing launched its sidewalk patio setup when it reopened for on-site business over Memorial Day weekend. Though beer must be ordered and paid for at the bar inside, new food items like soft baked pretzels and savory empanadas are delivered straight to one of the six outdoor tables (moved from the indoor taproom), which are spaced out in well-over-six-foot increments, according to the city’s Shop the Block permit, along the sidewalk facing the convention center. Those hot food items are optional, but every drink order includes a snack-sized bag of pretzels to meet new bar-to-restaurant permitting. Tables are available on a first come, first served basis.
Bouldin Creek fine dining staple Lenoir’s dining room is very small — 400 square feet — and designed for communal eating, so the restaurant needed to shift to an entirely outdoor experience to maintain service. Thankfully, co-owners and chefs Jessica Maher and Todd Duplechan already had a great space available: the on-site, fenced-in, oak-shrouded backyard and bar. This revamped outdoor space, which originally served as the waiting area for the restaurant and the casual wine garden, reopened in July. To emulate the elegant environment of their original space, Maher and Duplechan deconstructed their impressive chandelier, painted portions to match the white fences, and hung individual lights artfully above the 11 socially distanced tables. Recently, they expanded the space with an additional landing that fits six more tables, which can be tented with heaters during colder weathers.
Instead of its usual prix fixe offering, the menu now comprises a variety of a la carte small plates, sandwiches, large plates, and desserts, all designed for the alfresco ambience and derived from the same standard of seasonal ingredients customers have come to expect. With a capacity of 65 people — double what the restaurant could accommodate indoors — walk-ins are readily available, pending fullness by reservation.