N.H. Restaurants May Offer Outdoor Dining May 18, But Not All Can Or Will Take Part | New Hampshire Public Radio

N.H. Restaurants May Offer Outdoor Dining May 18, But Not All Can Or Will Take Part

May 8, 2020

TJ O'Neill, owner of Mad River Tavern in Campton, is building a deck so he can reopen with more outdoor seating on May 18.
Credit Sean Hurley/NHPR

Like a lot of restaurants, Mad River Tavern in Campton shut down in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Most employees were laid off, and whatever ingredients could be saved landed in the freezer. 

With the doors closed, tavern owner TJ O’Neil rolled up his sleeves.

With the help of a skeleton crew, he refurbished the bar, painted walls, and did trim work. 

“Everything we are doing right now, we had planned,” he said. “We’d been budgeting this for years. Like, okay, we’ll put away a little money for this cause we want to do this project. And we just, never, the time is always tough.”

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But with no customers to dislodge from their barstools, the shutdown meant he could cross-off all those ‘to do’ list items. The biggest one on that list is a brand new deck that could come in handy later this month.

Starting May 18, restaurants in New Hampshire can begin serving food and drinks outdoors. 

Under new state guidelines, all tables will need to be 6 feet apart, servers will have to wear masks, and reservations are required to limit crowding.

After more than seven weeks of being limited to take-out or curbside pick up, a return to outdoor seating is creating both optimism, and no shortage of handwringing, as restaurant owners and employees decide if and how they can safely serve customers in-person, while turning a profit.

Mad River is going all in, with plans to seat 15 tables spread out on the new deck and on an existing back patio. 

“We have plenty of land down there that we can have six, eight feet apart, and serve many, many, many people,” said O’Neil.

He’s even lined up a live musician for the 18th, and is rolling out the normal Monday special: burger and a beer for $10.

But maybe your tastes run a little more, shall we say, refined. 

“The thing we are most well-known for is a poached hen egg served with a creme fraiche whipped topping with sherry vinegar and then topped with sea trout roe,” Nimi Idnani said after being asked for her restaurant’s speciality.

Raleigh Wine Bar and Eatery in Portsmouth, a two-and-a-half year old restaurant owned by Idnani has done well with outdoor food service in recent summers. With a mix of both private patio space and city-owned sidewalk, Raleigh has space for nine tables, offering about 30 seats.

But with the new social distancing rules, Idnani is only able to fit about half the number of tables. 

She’s not sure outdoor seating, in this scenario, will be profitable, for her or her servers.

“They count on tips, and now there are only four tables, so how much could that possibly be?” she asked.

And then of course, there is another factor that exists largely out of a restaurant owner’s control: this is spring in New Hampshire. Not Miami Beach. 

“Truthfully, May 18th, I don’t know how many people are dining outside. It’s still cold,” said Jay McSharry, who owns a number of popular restaurants in Portsmouth. 

Even if the weather doesn’t keep people away, Gov. Chris Sununu’s stay-at-home order might. It remains in effect through May 31, two full weeks after restaurants can re-open.

“There definitely does seem to be a conflict between the two dates,” said Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig.

Craig is promoting an event on May 14 asking people to get take-out from their favorite local spots. When asked, she said she would be uncomfortable with going out to eat with her own family on the 18th.

“The thought of it, I would love to do, but I don't think I would feel comfortable with doing that right now,” she said. 

Manchester is still seeing new cases of coronavirus every day. More than 600 people have tested positive.

“But when our health director starts to see a decline in numbers in the city, I would feel more comfortable doing so,” she added.

There’s a petition asking Craig to consider shutting down Elm Street to traffic this summer, which would allow restaurants to spread out tables, while giving pedestrians plenty of room. 

It’s not that simple, though.

“You are talking about Elm Street, it’s the main street in the largest city north of Boston. It's not something you can just flip a switch on,” said Tim Baines, owner of Mint Bistro on Elm Street.

Restaurants may love the idea of taking over a whole street, but there are other stores and businesses that may not appreciate the loss of parking and access. 

Plus, it’s no small investment to buy patio furniture and figure out where to store it.

“I’d certainly be open to it. Everything will come down to math,” he said.

There’s math, but there’s also emotion. 

People are aching for some semblance of normalcy, and perhaps outdoor dining is a good first step toward that.

“People are going to be reassessing how comfortable they are with being out in public,” said Peter Macone, an operating partner at two popular Manchester restaurants, Republic and Campo Enoteca.

“So by offering this, I think this is going to help people back into that world that we’ve all been disconnected from for so long.”