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Will the craze for open-air dining outlast the pandemic?

The demand for open-air spaces among those dining out is on the rise. Will this lead to a permanent shift?

O Pedro at Bandra Kurla Complex in Mumbai

In late October, the Spanish newspaper EL PAÍS published an interesting animation on its website: a visualisation of how covid-19 spreads in indoor and outdoor environments and what the mitigating factors can be—for instance, in a restaurant or bar with 15 patrons and three staffers, up to 14 people could be infected if there was even one covid-positive person present, but only one would be infected if people were wearing masks and the premises were well-ventilated. Several studies have pointed to the role of the aerosol effect in the spread of covid-19, and besides wearing masks (which, let’s be honest, kind of defeats the entire purpose of meeting people physically), good ventilation is the number one way to prevent infections in social settings.

Which is why, for those of us venturing to eat out these days, the one thing that decides where we go is, “is it open air?” As Lounge has consistently reported, the restaurant industry needs to react quickly and inventively to the challenges posed by the drop in number of customers. One way can be to create pods and “igloos” to dine in, but an easier way is to utilise open-air spaces. And what better time to try this out than the winter months, when the weather permits open-air dining in most cities?

This is already happening, possibly marking a major shift in the way restaurants will be designed in the future as well. For instance, at the DLF Cyber Hub in Gurugram, Haryana, which has office spaces, restaurants and stores, restaurants like Olive Bar and Café, Pra Pra Prank and Burma Burma have extended their seating areas into the open spaces. In Mumbai, too, restaurants within the Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC), like O Pedro and Toast & Tonic, have extended their service areas to patios and gardens. The shift is visible outside posh private urban centres too—Qualia, chef Rahul Akerkar’s signature restaurant in Lower Parel, Mumbai, has been allowed to set up tables on the sidewalk. “Right now, everybody wants to sit out at Qualia and enjoy our kerbside service. I don’t know how it will be in the warmer months, but diners do like open-air settings. To a large extent, it all depends on the local government and if it is willing to work with restaurateurs to enable them to use public spaces in a good way,” says Akerkar.

Obviously the weather is a factor in a city like Mumbai, where you need air conditioning in most months. “But cities like New York and Singapore also have a lot of open-air dining,” points out Akerkar. While New York has a hot summer and sub-zero-temperature winters, Singapore, pretty much Mumbai-like in terms of heat and humidity, has extensive open-air dining areas, such as Holland Village and along its quays.

Local governments have been taking note. In July, The Times Of India reported that the South Delhi municipal corporation (SDMC) was planning to allow open-air restaurants. “The corporation came out with a draft policy on such restaurants offering dining in their open spaces. They will also be allowed to play light music, though seating diners on the pavements as done abroad will not be permitted,” the newspaper reported. what’s the position now/nearly five months have gone by

In Bengaluru, the weather pretty much permits outdoor dining through the year, and this is reflected in the way city pubs and restaurants have managed to utilise balconies and gardens despite the strict ruling against terrace spaces, that followed a fire at a Mumbai rooftop pub in 2017.

During the pandemic, demand for open-air tables has shot through the roof, says Ajay Nagarajan, CEO and head of F&B at Windmills Craftworks and Oota Bangalore in Whitefield, Bengaluru. “The open-air tables get sold out fastest when people are calling in to make reservations. There is a definite preference for outdoor seating at our restaurants in Whitefield as well as at our outlet at the airport,” says Nagarajan. The buzz in restaurant circles in Bengaluru, he says, also indicates that most restaurateurs are looking to repurpose and utilise existing outdoor spaces as much as possible.

“Will this lead to a more permanent shift in culture, where open-air dining becomes more a norm? For that, our city planners will first have to create more traffic-free, pedestrian-only zones,” says Akerkar.

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