2020 | Dine

Some restaurants bank on heated tents while Montgomery County prohibits indoor dining

Wind can be a factor, since part of tent must stay open

Heated tents were added to Bethesda's "Streetery" on Norfolk Avenue and in Veterans Park this month.

Photo by Dan Schere

Restaurant workers in Montgomery County say their heated tents have been popular for meal service, with indoor dining no longer an option.

The County Council, at the request of County Executive Marc Elrich, on Dec. 15 approved an indoor dining shutdown for bars and restaurants. Under the order, takeout and delivery service are still allowed, as is outdoor dining.

Restaurants may also operate heated tents if they conform to the following requirement:

  • The tents must be rectangular, or be approved by the county separately if they are not
  • They must be approved by the Department of Permitting Services
  • At least one side must stay open
  • The maximum capacity is 1 table per 50 square feet, and there must be 6 feet between people seated at different tables

Bryce Yetso, the general manager of Clyde’s of Chevy Chase, said in an interview Tuesday that his restaurant has a tent heated by propane that covers the outdoor patio used during warmer months.

Yetso said the tent has been popular so far this winter.

The only hindrance to customers is wind, on days when it is present. But wind usually isn’t a problem, he said, because the tall buildings on Wisconsin Avenue tend to impede its path.

“We had a couple days last week [in which temperatures] were in the 40s and 50s. Days like that, it’s actually pretty doable to turn the heaters off,” he said.

A heated tent at Clyde’s of Chevy Chase. Photo courtesy of Bryce Yetso.

Yetso recommends that customers make reservations to dine in the tent.

Outside the sister restaurants Summer House Santa Monica and Stella Barra Pizzeria & Wine Bar (both owned by Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises) in North Bethesda’s Pike & Rose development, four heated tents are powered by a giant propane tank, said Clay Tormey, an assistant general manager for the two restaurants.

Additionally, Tormey said there are three “greenhouses” — structures that are enclosed around one table each and are powered by electric space heaters.

Each structure has an open side, Tormey said. Customers who hadn’t experienced them before the indoor shutdown are starting to discover them because of the fresh air they can feel.

“We’re able to keep a good amount of airflow open,” he said.

Tables farthest from the open side tend to be the warmest, and are often the most popular, Tormey said.

Tents at the two restaurants are seated on a first-come, first-served basis. Anyone can reserve a tent for an hour and a half for a $100 fee, Tormey said. A couple of groups have rented tents for birthday parties during the pandemic.

Dining inside tents and other enclosed structures still poses risks because of the potential for droplets of moisture to build up, which increases the chances of transmission of the virus, medical experts told The Washington Post.

But researchers say that chances of transmission can be reduced by keeping part of the tent open, sanitizing surfaces and only dining with people you know.

Terry Laurin, who owns Finnegan’s Wake Irish Pub in Rockville with his wife, Vanessa, said Tuesday that he never bought an indoor tent to serve groups because it’s “too close for comfort” and the sight of the tents deters people from eating on site.

“When you go by and see people sitting in a tent, it doesn’t really look like distancing,” he said.

Laurin said he and his wife debated whether to get a tent for the winter, but they chose a different path.

“We went with the picnic tables and outdoor propane heaters,” he said.

Laurin said he plans to add fire pits, so people can relax outside the restaurant. The concept is similar to one he saw while visiting Vail, Colo.

“It worked out pretty well. People enjoyed it. Granted, those pits are bigger than what we’re gonna be getting,” he said.

The Bethesda Urban Partnership (BUP), has added tents to its “Streetery” — portions of streets that have been closed to vehicle traffic since the summer to add outdoor seating for customers getting takeout from nearby establishments.

There are four tents on Norfolk Avenue and one in Veterans Park. They have been operating for about five days, BUP spokeswoman Stephanie Coppula said on Tuesday.

Coppula said customers were using the tents over the weekend despite the cool temperatures.

Coppula said she hopes people will use the tents, or at least get takeout from the restaurants if they don’t want to sit outside.

“For us, we’re following the county guidelines, which state that at least one side has to be open, and we’re having two sides open. We understand that people have hesitation and apprehension,” she said.

“If people aren’t comfortable, that’s certainly understandable. We would encourage them to get takeout.”

The Daily Dish in Silver Spring and The Dish & Dram in Kensington both installed tents in May or June, said Davis Green, the general manager of both restaurants.

“We had a couple fans to bring the temperature down,” Green said of the summer months.

Green said the tents now have propane heaters for the colder months. The wind, he said, is generally the deciding factor for guests in determining whether they will eat on site.

“As long as we can heat up the space, people come out and they seem to enjoy it,” he said.

“Most people are still bundled up in multiple layers. They’re dining in their coats and their boots and stuff, but each person’s a little different.”

Green said business has been slower during the shutdown, but increased sales from the holidays have helped.

“We’ll see what January and February bring,” he said.

Green said not everyone will feel comfortable dining in a tent, but he hopes that by explaining to customers that the restaurants are following the county’s regulations, people will be put at ease.

“I think most of them are understanding that we’re having to make decisions and that we didn’t make them lazily [or] without understanding what we’re doing,” he said.

“We definitely understand that the decisions we make affect people and our staff and our guests. We can’t do the right thing for everybody, but we’re putting in a lot of energy and communicating it honestly.”

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com