Toronto restaurants are turning to outdoor bubble dining. Here’s how it works

Politicians think bubbles and domes are a viable winter dining option, but others prefer a return to indoors

Toronto restaurants are turning to outdoor bubble or igloo dining options to keep business going through the winter.

The COVID-19 resurgence has forced restaurants to once again shut down indoor dining as Ontario as part of modified Stage 2 rules in Toronto, Ottawa, Peel and recently York Region.

Waterfront restaurant Against the Grain responded by creating Bubble Dining By The Lake experience. The restaurant is serving lunch, brunch and dinner in the heated bubbles that can withstand 50 km/hour winds. And they’ll soon be introducing a four-course VIP menu. Fab Restaurant Concepts, the company that owns Against the Grain, hope to add the bubble experience to their Liberty Village cocktail bar Black Sheep.

Bubble dining isn’t new to Toronto. The InterContinental Toronto Yorkville, the Fifth and even the Bentway brought out heated geodesic domes in previous years to make use of outdoor space during winter. The latter, Dinner With A View, returns on November 11 for one month. The InterContinental is planning to bring their experience IGLOOsive back on November 12 for the entire winter.

In the past, the domes felt like an experiential fad imported from Northern Europe, playing off a Winter Wonderland idea. During COVID-19, igloo dining may turn into a necessity to help restaurants survive.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Toronto Mayor John Tory discussed the bubble dining experience as an option for restaurants with the real estate to set them up.

“These are the kinds of innovations and ingenuity we would like to permit,” Tory told the press on Tuesday.

The mayor also announced the end to curb-lane patios in mid-November, making way for winter plows. But the city will extend other aspects from the CafeTO plan to support the dining industry, including increased bylaw flexibility on outdoor patios and waiving of fees through the winter months. He said the city is going to be doing everything they can to help restaurants.

“We want to make sure that nothing is standing in the way from a regulatory standpoint.”

Dinner With A View is returning to The Bentway.

The Dinner With A View experience at The Bentway

A dining bubble for your bubble

Cam Parra, director of marketing at FAB Restaurant Concepts, and Shaun Pearson, executive assistant manager at InterContinental Toronto Yorkville, spoke to NOW about the dining experiences at Against the Grain and Proof Patio, respectively.

The domes at both restaurants have openings to enter and exit and two windows on opposite sides for continuous airflow. Heaters are on the inside, which they both say keep the bubbles comfy. However, Pearson warns the experience isn’t the most ideal on rainy or especially windy days. The InterContinental also provides blankets to guests, which are promptly thrown in the laundry after they’ve been used.

Staff wearing masks enter the domes to take orders and serve food. Parra explains that the floor plan in Against the Grain’s bubbles is designed so that there’s “plenty of space for staff and guests to easily interact while maintaining six feet.” They seat up to six people.

The Proof Patio bubbles are laid out for two or four guests.

“It’s a bubble for your bubble,” says Pearson, who adds that one more seat can be squeezed in for a family of five. However, any more wouldn’t fit with the dining arrangement and furniture.

Both restaurants thoroughly clean the space between seatings. Because of the hospital-grade chemicals used at Proof, the restaurant leaves the bubbles empty for an hour to air out between seatings. For each reservation, Proof makes a donation to Nellie’s, a shelter for women and children.

igloo dining at InterContinental Toronto Yorkville
Courtesy InterContinental Yorkville Toronto

The IGLOOsive experience is expected to return November 12

Domes vs tents

Tony Elenis, president and CEO of the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association, appreciates any restaurant’s effort to adapt to the current climate using bubbles and heated tents like the one Cabana Pool Bar is pitching. But he is more focused on advocating for safe protocols for indoor dining.

He’s asking the city for an accreditation program that coaches restaurants to follow specific rules and maintain consumer confidence during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because in the end, Elenis feels an igloo or a bubble is still indoor dining.

So does Pearson. He says that’s the reason InterContinental is waiting until November 12 to begin their IGLOOsive. They are operating under the assumption that the igloos are still restricted under modified stage 2 protocols. Their re-opening plan is dependent on whether the modified stage 2 will expire on November 6.

“As long as it doesn’t get extended, we will open November 12.”

According to Ontario and Toronto Public Health guidelines, tents or canopies have to have “at least two full sides of the outdoor dining area” open to the outdoors.

Bubbles, igloos or geodesic domes are not mentioned. Parra explains that Against the Grain’s bubbles keep the large opening entrance as well as two additional air vents open. And, as a reminder, the people dining within the bubbles are meant to be in their own social bubble.

“This is how creative stuff occurs,” says Elenis, laughing off the lack of clarity when it comes to rules during COVID-19. “You try to make things work.”


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