Thanks to relatively mild winters in Atlanta, save the occasional snowpocalypse event (and most of January,) area restaurants enjoy a nearly year-round patio season here. As the world enters its second winter since the pandemic began in 2020, the need for safe outdoor dining spaces continues to play a pivotal role in sustaining the success of the restaurant industry.
Most restaurant patios these days feature standing propane heat lamps or permanent and portable fire pits through the winter months. Some Atlanta restaurants even include large outdoor fireplaces as part of the functional design of a patio, like at Kevin Rathbun Steak in the Old Fourth Ward and Ecco in Midtown. But finding more efficient and environmentally friendly solutions to keeping outdoor diners warm on cold days is leading some restaurant owners to seek alternatives to conventional patio heating methods.
In recent years, adding temporary outdoor dining enclosures, including detachable walls with clear plastic windows, thick curtains, and tenting tables within geodesic domes, have become easy and relatively affordable solutions to cold weather patio dining in Atlanta. Geodesic domes, which are back again for the season on the rooftop of Ponce City Market, the front patio at Publico on Crescent Avenue in Midtown, and Alpharetta pizzeria Minnie Olivia, come equipped with or without heat inside. The entrance to the dome is left open to allow for proper airflow.
To offer more outdoor space for patrons of Brick Store Pub in downtown Decatur, owners Michael Gallagher, Dave Blanchard, and Tom Moore transformed the back lot behind the pub into a rambling beer garden, complete with its own ordering station and food menu. A traditional fire pit resides in the back corner surrounded by Adirondack chairs. But Gallagher says he and his partners knew they needed more heating sources to keep Brick Store’s popular outdoor gathering space open and comfortable throughout the Georgia winter.
The trio turned to compact wood-burning stoves that create less smoke and burn more efficiently than most fire pits.
“They are smaller, so you have to have your wood cut smaller. The wood is already expensive, and smaller cuts are even more expensive,” Gallagher says. “They do help with the smoke and create a good bit of heat out of a small footprint. Those are definitely bonuses.”
While the stoves produce less smoke and are easier to light, Gallagher admits it’s still up for debate as to whether these are better at keeping people warm than traditional fire pits, especially in larger, open-air spaces like the beer garden at Brick Store.
For East Atlanta restaurant owner Corban Irby, the solution to keeping the bustling patio open at his Osaka-style street food restaurant Ok Yaki during the colder months was inspired by his time living in Japan and born out of necessity last winter during the great propane heater shortage of 2021.
It’s been a year since Irby opened Ok Yaki next door to Hodgepodge Coffeehouse on Moreland Avenue, and the patio was the restaurant’s only dine-in option during the first few weeks in operation.
“Last year we didn’t have any inside seating when we opened because the dining room was still under construction,” Irby says. “I was trying to figure out something different to do besides propane heaters, because those were really expensive last winter. Prices were inflated because they were hard to find.”
In addition to purchasing three used propane heaters from Craigslist, Irby installed a set of Japanese-style kotatsu heaters beneath three picnic tables on the patio. These thin, square electric heaters are found in homes throughout Japan on the undersides of low tables with special fire-proof blankets draped over the top to help trap heat. Unlike fully assembled kotatsu tables, the picnic tables at Ok Yaki do not include blankets.
Individual kotatsu heaters average around $100 each.
With the help of his general contractor, Irby fastened the heaters and cords to custom wooden boards which slide into place under the tables and are easily removed after dinner service in the evenings. To keep people from potentially burning their legs on the heaters, Irby affixed felt around the outside of the units. But even at maximum power, he says, the heat produced isn’t overwhelming.
“It’s not extremely hot, but definitely a noticeable difference by keeping your legs warm versus heat just blasting in your face throughout a meal,” he explains. “People usually fight over those tables, so I guess the heaters are working well.”
Irby also bought three ceramic fans from H Mart for the table tops that emit light energy which turns into heat upon hitting the air. The fans average around $50 a piece.
“We’re lucky to live in an area of the country with pretty good weather most of the year because our patio has become a big part of the restaurant and helped us survive our first year,” Irby says. “I had to think outside the box. Even with the dining room open now and the weather cooling down, people still want to enjoy eating outside.”
Have you seen a clever patio heating solution at an Atlanta restaurant recently? Send Eater the details at email@example.com.