From left, Larney Staton and Phyllis Staton, both of California, laugh as they dine with their daughter, Allison Dopler and her husband Joe Dopler (not pictured) in an outdoor bubble at My Brother’s Bar on Friday, Oct. 23. (Rachel Woolf, Special to the Denver Post)

Sunday morning, with temperatures hovering below 15 degrees and snow falling, I nearly prompted the end of my relationship by insisting we drive across town to drink coffee and eat pastries, outside of a restaurant but inside a plastic greenhouse.

Days after that experience left us stuffed and in surprisingly good spirits, I’m here to tell you that, when done properly, outdoor winter dining can warm even your partner’s cold heart. That it’s worth experiencing for yourself.

And it might just save all of us over the coming season, from becoming more isolated and depressed and also from finding ourselves single and abandoned in a snowstorm outside of a restaurant.

At Annette in Aurora, 12 little polycarbonate structures are some of the first outdoor dining rooms to pop up around Denver. They’re outfitted with area rugs and wool blankets (washed between use), oscillating space heaters, QR-code menus and handy server call buttons attached to lights (like on an airplane).

With the space heaters humming and blankets thrown over our legs, a hot French press and those warm pastries (kolaches, bomboloni) on the table, the meal surrounded by snow and bone-chilling temps was quite wonderful.

Every once in awhile as we ate, a soft dusting floated down around me (but not on my date, somehow), and even that was like sitting in a department store’s Christmas display window, or at Santa’s workshop. Halfway through our brunch, the party next to us emerged from their greenhouse laughing and a little drunk. They asked the manager for a group photo.

Christine Courtney scans a QR code inside a greenhouse at Annette in Aurora, on Saturday, Oct. 24. (Rachel Ellis, The Denver Post)

This past weekend was the first test of winter weather for restaurants that have seen their doors close to in-person seating, then dining rooms reopen at 50% capacity and patios recovering some of that lost revenue but completely dependent on weather throughout the summer. This latest solution cost Annette around $11,000 and a full day of greenhouse building with the help of 25 volunteers, but “it’s been incredible so far,” said owner Caroline Glover.

“Not only has it increased our seating capacity,” she explained, “it’s also giving people a chance to go out and have an experience.”

The greenhouses are just the beginning of the experience. At Annette, Glover and her team are awaiting a yurt that they’ll decorate and seat for holiday family dinners or small company parties. At My Brother’s Bar, across Denver, owner Danny Newman and his team have set up a string of igloo-like dining domes — some fitted with tables, others featuring couches, chairs and electric fireplaces, like an outdoor living room.

“Domes, greenhouses, tents, we ended up going with all of that,” Newman said. “The domes make it feel way fancier than it is, unintentionally. I think people are both surprised at the prices and what type of food they’re getting” from My Brother’s Bar.

While that 147-year-old business is busy reconciling its old and new image, Uptown’s Beast + Bottle is making sure a new “greenhouse village” feels seamless with the restaurant, complete with private music playlists. Cherry Creek’s Barolo Grill is about to install upscale, outdoor dining pods surrounding courtyard fire pits. And Black Cat’s farm dinners outside of Boulder are already being served inside private “cabanas” complete with wood stoves and views of silos and chickens.

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A wood stove and views of the farm at Black Cat in Boulder. (Doug Brown, Provided by Black Cat Farm)

“The feeling of (dining outside) is kind of what we’re excited about,” said Allison Anderson, manager of the restaurants Beckon and Call in Denver. “We can provide this really unique, hopefully-once-in-a-lifetime winter experience for you at our restaurant, and encourage people to come out with that one person … and appreciate what we can, now.”

Anderson and her team at the neighboring Larimer Street restaurants are working on a combination of winterized tent dining and individual greenhouses, which will debut on Nov. 4. They’ll serve multi-course and special-occasion meals inside these individual structures.

“What I see is that people just want to be taken care of, and they want to feel like they’re dining in an environment that is taking their health and enjoyment into mind at all times,” Anderson said. “This is such an important time for people to be together, and that we have them coming and choosing to spend that night with us, I think that’s so important.”

That Anderson is stressing the need for hospitality amid a pandemic and economic recession is also important. Her industry has been hit hard, with restaurants staying in business only by changing their offerings and formats constantly, as they are doing now in order to survive winter.

“You’re just not really even sure anymore,” Anderson explained. “Are restaurants going to survive? Can I keep doing the thing that I’ve been doing?”

A rendering of the new outdoor dining courtyard coming to Barolo Grill in November, featuring aluminum and plexiglass individual dining pods. (Provided by Barolo Grill)

As of this week, restaurants’ indoor capacities in Denver County have been slashed to 25% with a maximum of 50 diners.

According to the Colorado Restaurant Association, half of the state’s restaurants report that they could still close over the next six months if they continue to operate even at 50% indoor capacities. These restaurant owners say they need 75% of their seating in order to “have a chance at medium-term survival,” the CRA reports. And to do so, 60% of them will take advantage of winter patios if they’re able.

“If capacities were further restricted, or another indoor shutdown occurred, we’d hope that outdoor dining would still be allowed,” Sonia Riggs, CEO of the Restaurant Association, said prior to Tuesday’s announcement of the new 25% limit. “Restaurants have told us they need two things especially to survive: cash and capacity.”

Last week, in an effort to provide both, the CRA and the state of Colorado held a winter outdoor design workshop, convening architects, engineers, contractors and other stakeholders. They also announced a grant program including up to $750,000 donated by Xcel Energy to help restaurants winterize their patios. Potential designs and more grant information will be available on Nov. 1, according to the CRA. Riggs said she expects the program to help “a sizable pool of restaurants.”

“We’re hopeful that it will help some (survive the winter), but we know it’s not enough,” she added.

Even after investing these resources, restaurants like Annette and My Brother’s Bar have to contend with public perception when it comes to safety. Glover said she’s already seeing concerns arise about enclosed outdoor spaces, even when they are literally sanitized bubbles.

My Brother’s Bar sat closed to diners on Monday, not because of COVID-19 concerns, but because the temperature outside was too cold for staff members. Newman said he was waiting on even more weather-proofing to keep his employees protected. But as far as the customers are concerned, he said, the domes are “nice and toasty” (even with exhaust fans and airing out between parties).

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“That’s our number-one question,” Glover said of the cleaning process, explaining as she does to customers that Annette offers time slots for its greenhouse reservations, with room built-in for sanitizing. “We go in with a (sprayer) full of sanitizer and spray down every single surface,” she explained, “and allow them to dry with the roofs and doors open.”

She is hopeful that all of these hurdles — sanitization, money spent, relationships tested — will pay off in the end.

“So many people who have eaten in these (greenhouses) haven’t been out since March,” she said of the initial response she’s heard from patrons. “It also allows for families to feel more comfortable bringing their small children … . This allows them to be in their own contained little house while getting the chance to not eat out of a to-go box.”

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