Water views, city streets and bucolic country settings have always been popular backdrops for al fresco meals in the Baltimore area. But even just a few years ago, restaurants typically did not put a lot of extra effort into jazzing up outdoor spaces.
Recently, that has changed. As the local restaurant scene has expanded and matured, restaurateurs' focus on outdoor spaces has grown. For Baltimoreans, that means more – and more elaborate – outdoor dining options, from secluded urban oases to patios decorated with multi-functional greenery.
In busier spaces, semi-hidden seating is being used to create a more intimate setting to appeal to customers.
When Gunther & Co. opened in Brewers Hill last year, it immediately received praise for its gorgeous interior. But its outdoor space, a patio hidden behind the building, is also a draw.
During the design, "the patio was definitely a priority," said Gunther & Co. director of operations Nancy Hart. The idea, she said, was to create a "secret spot" that people could discover. The patio, which is bordered by bench seating and a pergola, mixes wood, metal and greenery in a space where people can sit for a full meal or grab a drink while watching a game on the outdoor, glare-friendly television.
Gray Zurbruegg, a resident of The Gunther apartment building next door, thinks of the restaurant's patio as his "third space." "You have your house, work and the third place, that place you go for conversation and socializing," he said. "Gunther is definitely it for me."
Zurbruegg says he can often be found perched at the end of Gunther's outdoor bar, with his English bulldog in tow. "He likes to chew on the firewood there and he also likes to investigate the living wall, which is super-interesting," said Zurbruegg. "They have this wall space of living plants they use in their kitchen."
At Cafe Troia in Towson, the covered deck off the back of the restaurant has been a popular dining spot for years. But under the deck, the restaurant boasts a second, even more intimate, outdoor space, decorated with green plants and bordered by a copper-colored, iron fence.
"It's an oasis," said co-owner Lisa Martin. "You wouldn't think you're in downtown Towson."
The promise of a secluded outdoor courtyard in the middle of the city was a primary factor in location selection for the owners of Cosima, which opened last year.
"One of the reasons we opened up in Mill No. 1 was because of that outdoor space," said Alan Hirsch, general manager of Cosima and co-owner of Donna's in Cross Keys (which has long embraced outdoor dining).
"It's on the water in the middle of the city," he said. "It's really a unique space. You could be in a section of Manhattan, surrounded by buildings with a river running through it."
Tagliata, the Italian restaurant opening later this summer in the space formerly occupied by Fleet Street Kitchen and Ten Ten, is home to another slightly secluded courtyard; this one is set back off Fleet Street in Harbor East.
The space will include a bar and lounge furniture, surrounded by planters and trees and lit by strands of small overhead lights. "We'll also have an outdoor projector that will show black-and-white Italian films from the '40s and '50s," said Alex Smith, president of Atlas Restaurant Group, which owns Tagliata.
At the Mt. Washington Tavern, a collaboration with Living Canopies, a College Park-based company that uses plants to create umbrellas and other shade structures, resulted in a living pergola located in the upstairs Sky Bar.
Living Canopies attached window boxes to an existing pergola, planted mandevilla, a vibrant flowering plant, and incorporated a solar-powered watering system, so the structure is low maintenance.
"It's really pretty," said Rob Frisch, co-owner of the Mt. Washington Tavern, who believes al fresco dining has gained popularity every year. "All you see are big green leaves and the fluted flowers. It keeps it cooler out there and is really unique and neat."
"The plants themselves, because they're using water, help cool the space," explained Dr. David Tilley, an associate professor of ecological engineering at the University of Maryland and co-owner of Living Canopies. "They block sunlight and also take heat from the sun and turn that into a water vapor that removes heat from the space."
At Petit Louis in Columbia and Cinghiale in Harbor East, the outdoor spaces – both with water views – are surrounded with greenery in planter boxes inspired by co-owner Tony Foreman's time in Paris.
"When you're in the 8th Arrondissement on the Boulevard Montagne, planters are one after another after another in front of restaurants," he said. "They do a great job of making it feel exclusive and lovely."
When Foreman learned that the restaurant would need to cordon off the space to legally serve alcohol outside at Petit Louis, he shared photos he'd taken of those Paris restaurants with a local builder, who created the planters. They were installed at Petit Louis in 2015; this year, Cinghiale's patio has been updated with a similar look.
At both restaurants, the planters do more than create boundaries; they also provide ingredients. "They serve as a kitchen garden, too," said Foreman. "It's almost all herbs and edible flowers that populate the boxes."
Outside the city, where space is more abundant, restaurant owners have more opportunity to get creative with outdoor areas.
Bruce Bodie, co-owner of Tark's Grill in Green Spring Station and City Cafe in Mount Vernon, notes that while both restaurants have outdoor dining, the experience is quite different.
At City Cafe, Bodie says the six outdoor tables, located on the shady sidewalk outside the restaurant, are consistently hot commodities.
At Tark's in Baltimore County, the outdoor space is in the courtyard at Green Spring Station, which is quiet and secluded; it's a completely different vibe from City Cafe.
Tark's courtyard dining and bar area is bordered by a water feature that has a fire element. This spring, the courtyard was also upgraded with new furniture and the addition of a pergola including a retractable canvas roof.
"With a remote control you can close the entire canvas roof and have the patio under shade," Bodie said. "If it rains, we can deploy clear side panels and create a room. It's got infrared heaters that can heat in cooler weather, too."
At some restaurants, a patio gives the restaurant an opportunity to try something different.
At The Turn House in Columbia, the casual outdoor space provides a completely different dining experience than the more upscale inside.
The outdoor patio, which opened for the first time on Father's Day, includes picnic tables and a fire pit, plus games like cornhole and an oversized Jenga set.
Chef and owner Thomas Zippelli plans to set up a grill each weekend and partner with breweries to host outdoor parties through the summer and fall. He sees the outdoor space as a good opportunity to cater to the golf crowd; The Turn House is located on the Hobbits Glen golf course.
Regardless of the level of formality, restaurateurs say people enjoy themselves when they're dining outside.
"It tends to be a little more leisurely," said Hirsch, of Cosima. "If the weather's beautiful, they tend to hang out and enjoy the environment. We spend so much of our lives indoors, so the opportunity to be outside is great."
Zurbruegg, the Gunther customer, agreed. "It's just sort of a reminder that today is a good day," he said.