We’re all stoked to celebrate the start of Nova Scotia’s reopening plan today by grabbing a few drinks on a patio. But for the bars and restaurants that make patio season happen, being able to handle customers means getting a lot of work done in a short time—after more than a month of lockdown, it was just last Friday afternoon that Strankin unveiled the reopening plan and its Phase 1 permission for patios. In the middle of the frenzy, two of Halifax’s biggest patio players were able to take a moment to tell The Coast what it takes to get ready for COVID-conscious fun in the sun.
Stillwell co-owner Laura MacDonald says that reopening is an obvious relief. “Our Beergarden being seasonal, we'd been kind of sitting around stressing about what was going to happen with that,” she says. “It's obviously a big clean-up and set-up every year because it kind of sits all winter.”
When the announcement of reopening came, things had to shape up fast. “It’s been a whirlwind,” says MacDonald, “The past few days have been really intense trying to get ready.”
Both the Spring Garden Road Beergarden and the patio at The Stillwell Freehouse on Agricola Street are opening Wednesday. Tables are spaced out to allow for six feet between patrons, and there have been improvements made at each patio this season: The addition of tables at the Beerarden to accommodate smaller groups, and more accessible seating at both the Beergarden and Freehouse.
While the announcement to reopen came fast, per usual, MacDonald says this is the best amount of notice from the government they’ve gotten so far during the pandemic, with enough time for food and drink orders to arrive before opening. She says that while some of the new guidelines were unclear or ambiguous, she feels that the government has been good about answering questions.
MacDonald is aware of how lucky they are at Stillwell to be able to reopen, and she’s conscious of all the restaurants without patios that have to stay closed during Phase 1, when relaxed rules for socializing mostly apply to outdoor gatherings. “Watching our peers not able to take advantage of things that we are,” says MacDonald, “that certainly isn’t fun.”
In the heart of downtown Halifax’s famed dining-and-drinking zone on and around Argyle Street, it’s hard to miss one of Geir Simensen’s patios. Simensen co-owns Legendary Hospitality Group, the umbrella company that oversees a host of restaurants including patio destinations Antojo, Durty Nelly's and The Rooftop and Stubborn Goat Gastropub. And he shares the same worries as MacDonald around the uncertainties of reopening: “We’ve had a lot of time on our hands. Typically that should be a good thing, but it’s been challenging this year.”
He says that the reopening of patios gives a glimpse of recovery and has been a boost in morale, especially for staff eager to get back to work. Legendary Hospitality is also reviving a project that got curbed by COVID last summer, the Salt Yard Social, an outdoor wine bar on the waterfront located right next to the Stubborn Goat’s harbourside Beer Garden.
Simensen says Salt Yard is “going to essentially be everything the Beer Garden is not,” and will focus more on cocktails and wine, with a sophisticated food menu. It will also be integrated with the Beer Garden, and as restrictions lift in later phases of reopening, patrons will be able to mingle between the two patios. Salt Yard won’t be ready for Wednesday, but it won’t be far behind, with construction expected to finish up in the next two to three weeks. All of the other patios are on track to take on the crowds.
Simensen expresses concern that the demand could mean not everyone gets a seat, but he’s confident that the patios and staff at the bars are well prepared for the rush. “We just can’t wait to get back and do what we do,” he says. “Our staff are ready to welcome everyone home.”
To give you some al fresco inspiration, here’s The Coast’s list of more than 100 patios across the city. Just be aware it was published in 2019, and some places have closed and opened since then. The Coast will be producing an updated list later this month as part of the annual Hot Summer Guide.