We are living in interesting times where a novel coronavirus has changed the food and beverage landscape, likely for a long time. However, the industry has been resilient: not only have food operators overhauled their business model – in addition to adding procedures and protocols for customer and staff safety both for indoor and outdoor dining – but in some cases they are updating the very HVAC infrastructure and mechanics of their buildings. One popular Waterloo venue has even initiated “mini-lockdowns” between customer washroom use. It’s a new reality, indeed. Keep your distance, shrink your bubble and wear your mask: food and beverage businesses need us to do that.
Date Night: Covid Edition
We can find date-night options in their virtual manifestation in the form of couples’ cooking classes offered by Relish Cooking Studio, The Culinary Studio and the Kitchener Market. Yet, another interesting transformation has occurred which plays to our sense of “Canadian.” What has happened almost overnight is that re-envisioned and re-equipped patios have become a necessary amenity for restaurants. Many have gone to extreme lengths and significant expense to create comfortable spaces as the weather gets cooler. We are hardy, we Canadians, a people used to snow and ice and the odd Arctic vortex. We can endure in the face of cold – and that Canuck quality is what restaurateurs are counting on as fall and winter roll in.
For the first time ever in our dining-out history, restaurateurs, cooks and waitstaff are asking us to embrace a fellow Nordic-country characteristic. While the Danes and Norwegians have given us a sense of coziness and contentment in the term “hygge,” as they huddle in front of the fireplace, there is also a new frame of mind we can embrace: the Norwegians offer the idea “friluftsliv” – a word that loosely translates to “living the outdoor life.” So, while Nordic cuisine isn’t really part of the dining scene here, many Canadians, as they seek something tasty to eat and drink, are hardy enough to adopt this Norwegian idea.
So, get in touch with your inner Norsk during this Waterloo Region fall. Bundle up and embrace a date-night friluftsliv. Below is a sampling of venues to consider.
In the Fat Sparrow Group, Taco Farm has a patio with new fleece blankets for sale ($7), while sheltered areas and heaters take the chill off at Jacob’s Grill in St. Jacobs. At Marbles, the patio also offers blankets, but co-owner Nick Benninger says warming drinks are a good thing too.
“The spaces are lovely. We have warm cocktails and a menu that’s conducive to eating outdoors in cooler weather,” Benninger says. “In St. Jacobs we have two walls on our tents and heaters that draw outside air. It’s lovely too.”
Benninger adds that he’s been talking to governing and administrative authorities to get permission for outdoor chiminea-type fire-places.
Pre-Covid-19, Proof Kitchen | Lounge had a lovely patio to visit with a cozy and yet spacious setting and an airy ambiance which seemed to transport you to a place other than busy Erb Street West. Comfortable and lounge-like furniture, the music and chef Jeritt Raney’s cooking have made the patio an Uptown Waterloo favourite. Located in the Barrel Yards district, Proof has recently re-opened for inside dining, but they have added a few amenities to the patio as the cooler weather rolls, according to manager Laura Umbrio.
“We currently have propane patio heaters and are installing wind blocks, electric heaters and potted cedars to buffer wind. We’re creating a cozy fall patio space, so people can take advantage of it into the early winter with our menu of mulled wines and steamed cocktails. Chef Raney is also creating a fun warming patio snack menu to go with our drink list,” Umbrio says.
At brewer Together We’re Bitter (TWB), there are no blankets but, according to TWB worker/owner Alex Szaflarska, there is a cozy patio for a malty and hoppy beer date-night.
“We encourage people to bring their own blankets. We have patio heaters and will keep them going as long as we can,” she says.
You could make it a series of date nights if you’re a beer aficionado: the brewery strives to rotate as many as eight diverse beers that reflect seasonal change, along with some non-alcoholic options such as kombucha and craft soda. As for food to warm the body and soul, that will include local food trucks, booked every weekend through the end of October. “We also sell local snacks such as Barrie’s Asparagus Chips, Millbank cheese curds, and Clementine Catering dips. We encourage people to call ahead or check our social media as we, and our community partners, have to shift plans week by week,” Szaflarska says.
For October, TWB hours will be Thursday to Sunday, and they encourage visitors to bring their own food on days when there are no food trucks at the brewery (please check their website). “It’s a great chance to try take-out from that one spot you’ve been thinking about – or even have something delivered,” Szaflarska says.
However, one of the most interesting developments is at Village Biergarten in St. Jacobs – popping up on the patio is a series of greenhouse-like shelters: call it “dining by geodesic dome.” Perhaps not true polyhedrons, the several patio shelters (with four more on back order) are about 12 feet in radius and can cover up to eight people – people who are in the same social bubble.
“We have had custom tables made for the domes,” says Village Biergarten general manager Rob Brown. “These are rare here but they are becoming more popular. I saw them first when I was playing hockey in Finland.”
The domes are like an ice-fishing hut, as Brown describes them: the warmth trapped by any sunshine during the day combined with body heat makes conditions comfortable. “The other day, it was cool, but we had people taking off their jackets,” says Brown. Heaters can be safely added to the design, he adds. Reservations for the domes are required (note that time is required between reservations for a rigorous sanitizing of the domes), and there are other conditions that must be met, so please check with the restaurant for details. The Biergarten patio is also equipped with heaters, heat lamps, fireplaces and blankets – the total effect of which is that customers have really taken to the shelters to such a degree that reservations are booked solid at least a week out, according to Brown.
“With our waitstaff limited in entering the dome, we are making them Covid-19 safe. In cold weather, you can be comfortable with proper outdoor wear.”
Turn your Date Night into a Weekend Getaway
While travel abroad is on the back burner, a staycation at one of Waterloo Region’s hotels offers couples a chance to feel like they’re getting away, without the travel time. Here are just a few of the offerings available:
At Cambridge Hotel & Conference Centre, they offer a special Date Night Package that includes a bottle of wine, breakfast for 2, and a late check out.
Spend the entire weekend together at New Hamburg’s Puddicombe House; stay in one of their 8 guest rooms, enjoy a meal in the on site restaurant, and head over to the spa where both of you can be pampered from head to toe.
The historic Walper Hotel in downtown Kitchener offers curated ‘experience’ packages to mark special celebrations, or just provide the two of you with a self-care retreat.
The Romantic Escape at Homewood Suites in St. Jacobs includes overnight accommodations in a spacious room or suite (special in-room surprises included).
And, Hot Date Specials are back at Langdon Hall, along with their popular overnight getaways, retreats and escapes.
Andrew Coppolino is a writer-broadcaster, and is a food columnist with CBC Radio in Waterloo Region. Following a stint as a cook at a restaurant in Kitchener, Andrew chose to work with food from the other side of the kitchen pass. As a food writer, he is dedicated to promoting and nurturing culinary businesses and advocating for local chefs and restaurants. Andrew’s work has been published in newspapers and magazines across Canada, the United States and England.