The Total Absurdity of Outdoor Dining Structures

Are you even still “outside” if you’re in a completely enclosed space?

An outdoor dining tent is seen crumpled on the sidewalk during a snowstorm
Wang Ying / Xinhua / Getty

About the author: Steve Macone is a writer based in New York.

Pandemic creativity in the restaurant industry has been a wonder to behold. All those outdoor tables and benches with planters appeared. They looked tasteful, you know? Like if a shop class had built Paris. But then stupid fall came out of nowhere. So we wheeled out these slick heaters and tried warming up the outside. It was great. You felt like an unsold rotisserie chicken.

And you felt free. Because America is about freedom. The government gave restaurants the freedom to figure out how to stay in business through a pandemic all by themselves. That meant the freedom to have indoor dining outside and call it outdoor dining. Restaurants gave patrons the freedom to contract a deadly disease inside a large plastic bubble. Patrons in turn allowed restaurants the freedom to pretend that any structure they set up was safe. A “don’t ask, don’t smell” policy. It’s been a real hot potato of freedom. Which actually would be a great outdoor side dish.

So 2020 was the year we could all finally stop wondering what it’d look like if a gazebo fucked an umbrella. But I don’t think we’ve gone far enough. Here, in the spirit of me doing my part to help end this pandemic, are some new ideas for outdoor dining structures we could all feel great about using:

1. The Corpse of That Horse-Ostrich Thing Luke Skywalker Gets Shoved Into

Coming in at just slightly less sanitary than a restaurant tent, the steaming carcass of any megafauna will do. Meet up with friends, hop into the freshly dead warmth of what will later become someone else’s entrée, and just vibe.

2. A Very Large Wardian Case

Have you ever wanted to go to town on a skirt steak while feeling like a tomato plant? This Victorian precursor to the terrarium—an orangery writ small, to the inexpert—is a fancy little greenhouse made of glazed glass. Wardians were originally designed to keep delicate orchids alive on long sea voyages, and we’re delicate flowers, aren’t we? Can’t go three months without squid-ink risotto? Get in there, you precious little orchid. And start exuding what’s clearly first-date energy to let passersby know this plague isn’t that serious.

3. A Big Feedbag, Strapped Over Everyone’s Face. Plus a Blanket Draped Over You Like a Real Horse in Winter.

Don’t tell me you’ve never looked at a horse and yearned to be that cared for. Sneaking a bite of your friend’s tempura cauliflower has never been so easy. Or try that stranger’s al pastor taco, which you regret not ordering. This combines the concepts of a feedbag, a trough, and those old group urinals you used to see at stadiums. You and a friend sit outside, preferably by some sort of post, and the server straps one long feedbag over everyone’s face. Your breath even keeps the food warm. You haven’t seen Jerry in months. Now you see his pores.

4. A Literal Body Bag

If you’re anything like me, you probably think body bags get unfairly pigeonholed. A bag that shape can be used for lots of stuff! Storing snowboards, mannequins—even bodies that are alive. So yeah, you and a friend or two get inside the bag and go at your potato skins and fajitas like a pack of cane corsos.

5. A Hockey Penalty Box

Plexiglass walls, a nice little bench—it’s almost weird that we haven’t been eating in these things. The dank scent of tape glue and remorse sweat is perfect for experiencing a vague sense that you’ve done something wrong and let your team down but that you don’t feel too bad about. So it’s perfect.

6.  Porta-Potties

Okay, but pretend you didn’t know what these structures were. Like, you just had no associations with them. One day you see a neat row of these pretty, load-bearing plastic ice-fishing huts lining the sidewalk in front of your favorite eatery. I mean, yum, right?! Pull open that spring-loaded door for an embarrassment of sanitation riches: a hand-sanitizer dispenser already installed, a whole roll of napkins, some sort of slop sink. The seating’s even got its center cut out for comfort, like a fancy bike seat. There’s also a weird plastic mirror and transgressive wall art. The only problem is these things might be a little too ventilated.

7. Dumpster Hot Tubs

As with so many areas of culture, Philly was at the cutting edge when residents started using dumpsters as pools long before the pandemic. I say we class the dumpster up even more, by making it a hot tub. One that also cooks your hot dogs. In this perpetual stew, strangers are the bay leaves. Don’t worry about security; police love guarding dumpsters, now that dumpster hot tub is starting to describe America.

8. Just Go Over to Your Friends’ House and Eat There

If you think about it, your friends’ house has more space and fewer strangers than a closed-in outdoor dining structure. So we’re agreed: You’re eating at your friends’ house. And if you’re already going over there—I think you see where this is heading, just the type of inside-the-box thinking that got us eating inside boxes outside—why don’t you all just go eat in one of those completely closed outdoor dining structures that restaurants have set up on the sidewalk?

9. A Restaurant

These abandoned structures were once very popular. In the past there would even be a wait on weekends. But no one has used them in a year. They’re large, and have their own built-in bathroom. The ventilation’s probably fine.