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We Can Still Hang Out Outside!

Staring down the icy heart of our pandemic winter, it is still a lousy idea to gather inside. But with some grit and common sense (masks, pods, distancing — you know the drill) we can take our socializing, dining, and celebrating outdoors. It’s time to bundle up and double down on Maine’s best season.

ABOVE: Around the firepit at Oxbow Beer Garden, in Oxford, where the kitchen’s still turning out pizzas and calzones and the dining room is outside.

By Brian Kevin
Slideshow photos by Cait Bourgault

Back in the spring, when some of us still hoped this whole pandemic thing might peter out in a few months, Fluvial Brewing co-owner Lisa Graham was already surfing the web for garden domes and bubble tents, envisioning a winter when customers at her Harrison nanobrewery couldn’t crowd the taproom she opened with her husband, Shaun, in 2019. 

“Pretty early on, we knew COVID wasn’t going away and that winter was going to be a challenge,” she says. On Facebook Marketplace, she found some used geodesic domes she liked, perfect for Fluvial’s beer garden, each with room for a half-dozen people to crush pints outside-ish while more or less protected from the elements. Now, they’re Fluvial’s reservable “beer domes,” where drinkers gather every Thursday through Sunday, enjoying space heaters and views of the Oxford Hills and ducking out here and there to loiter by the firepits.

Fluvial’s Beer Garden - 
Reservable “beer domes”
Plastic-walled “igloos” overlook ledges and ocean at Cape Neddick’s Cliff House, where guests of the resort can order off a takeout menu or opt for fondue. Photograph courtesy of Cliff House Maine.

“Bring your bubble to our bubble, is the idea,” says Graham, who realized during Fluvial’s first winter that customers would often rather stand out by the fire than sit in the taproom. “I think Mainers are used to our winters and being outdoors, and people just enjoy them.” 

Plenty of people in Maine hospitality circles are hoping she’s right. As of this writing, indoor dining is still permitted under state guidelines, with strict capacity and distancing limits, but with COVID cases surging, many diners are justifiably hesitant to pull up to a table indoors. In November, meanwhile, the state indefinitely pushed back a planned reopening date for indoor seated service at bars and tasting rooms, still prohibited when this magazine went to press. So business owners are left seeking creative outdoor solutions — and hoping Mainers will lean into their rugged north-country heritage.

They are at Marshall Wharf Brewing Company, says co-owner Dann Waldron. When he and his wife, Kathleen Dunckel, reopened the Belfast institution this summer (previous owners had closed it in 2019), they added an outdoor bar to their riverside beer garden. “Then, around September, we started getting a lot of inquiries from regulars: ‘Oh man, are you going to keep this going in the winter?’” Waldron says. “At first I was like, how the hell are we going to do that? But it just became a no-brainer. We had to at least try.”

Waldron and Dunckel invested in a fleet of propane-powered heat lamps and built a massive chimenea out of an old propane tank. They covered the beer garden with a corrugated plastic roof and added extra wind blocks with open space above and below, for air circulation. “You’re still outside, but you’re under cover,” Waldron says. “You might be cold out there if you’re away from a heat source, but you’re not going to be blasted by wind or moisture.”

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Waldron had to wait out a backorder for heat lamps — a consequence of high demand. Ian Malin, owner of West End Portland bistro Little Giant, anticipated the rush and ordered 10 electric ones last summer. Now, they’re heating a handsome new covered courtyard with socially distanced seating for 30. At the barbecue/Tex-Mex restaurant Terlingua — recently reopened in a new location on Portland’s Washington Avenue, a block from its former spot — owners Pliny Reynolds and Melanie Kratovil put in a covered deck with wall-hanging space heaters hooked up to natural-gas lines, overlooking an outdoor picnic area with firepit. At Chaval, chefs Ilma Lopez and Damian Sansonetti’s West End brasserie, electric infrared heaters crank out BTUs over patio tables, where guests sit with loaner (or purchased) blankets from Portland’s Evangeline Linens, nursing hot toddies served in thermoses. Four heated mini-greenhouses are scattered around the patio, each enclosing tables that seat up to four. As of now, the Portland City Council has permitted outdoor dining only through January 4, but some restaurateurs are hoping for an extension.

“Our whole goal is just to get people out and feeling like this is normal,” Lopez says. “Yeah, it’s cold, but we can still have this experience together.”

Particularly for taprooms, the experience of eating and drinking outside often dovetails with more active outdoor rec. At Fluvial, the Grahams’ 40-acre property includes an extensive trail system for skiing, snowshoeing, and fat-tire biking. At Oxbow Beer Garden, in Oxford, which serves wood-fired pizza along with suds, the backyard picnic tables, lounge chairs, and firepits overlook a free, groomed, 5-mile trail network. Funky Bow Beer Company, in Lyman, put in a 3,200-square-foot skating rink this winter, along with a takeout window for food and drink. At Odd Alewives Farm Brewery, in Waldoboro, skiers and snowmobilers come off the adjacent snowmobile trail for pizza and beer around one of six new reservable firepits. 

Outdoor bar at Tops’l Farm
Outdoor bar at Tops’l Farm. Photographed by Greta Tucker.
Firepit set up for Tops’l Farm’s winter raclette picnics
Firepit set up for Tops’l Farm’s winter raclette picnics. Photographed by Greta Tucker.
Inside an “igloo” at the Kennebunkport Inn
Inside an “igloo” at the Kennebunkport Inn, open (with a holiday theme) through January 3, then returning in February. Photographed by Dave Dostie.

“A dose of winter sunshine and fresh air is good for the soul,” says John Bonney, who co-owns Portland’s Foundation Brewing Company, where infrared heat lamps and tables with built-in firepits warm the patio. “Other cultures get it. A great example is Quebec City’s Winter Carnival, where they’re literally having a party on the ice.”

“There’s a woman I know from Norway who tells me they have a full-blown film festival outside in winter,” says Sarah Pike, co-owner of Waldoboro’s Tops’l Farm glampground and event space. “Barrel fires and firepits everywhere, just this embrace of it.”

Pike takes a page from the Swiss with Tops’l’s winter picnics, ticketed lunches and dinners featuring grilled veggies, oysters, cured meats, and Swiss raclette cheese. In non-COVID times, guests take apéritifs around the campfire, then gather in a riverside yurt. This year, they’ll melt raclette over private firepits or grills, then dine at tables scattered in the pasture or a large open barn. This Swiss motif continues across the Medomak River, where Allison Lakin, of Waldoboro’s East Forty Farm, put a woodstove in a snug screen house and offers private fondue dinners featuring her Lakin’s Gorges cheeses. (She does guided cheese tastings too, during which she bundles up, stands outside, and narrates through the screen, so as not to invade visitors’ pods.)

Ice shanties on the deck at Batson River Brewing & Distilling
The stylish new private-dining ice shanties on the deck at Batson River Brewing & Distilling. Photographed by Heidi Kirn.

Some restaurants are taking a playful approach. At the Boathouse Restaurant, in Kennebunkport, the riverfront deck is dotted with “gingerbread houses,” wooden private-dining shacks done up with faux-candy decorations, warmed with space heaters, and seating four to six. Kennebunk’s Batson River Brewing & Distilling offers reservations for heated, custom-made ice-fishing shanties, complete with tip-ups outside the door, so diners can raise a flag to signal waitstaff.

“For us, we want to make sure that guests coming out to support us are going to have the same service and ambiance they would otherwise,” managing partner Debbie Lennon says. “It’s important to still represent your brand when you do these things.”

“It’s hard for me to go to all my favorite places and see plexiglass and things that seem very hospital-like,” agrees Allison Stevens, who owns the Thirsty Pig sausage emporium in Portland’s Old Port. She put up four rustic wood-framed booths, seats lined with heat-reflecting space blankets, in an al fresco lot behind the restaurant. They’re unheated, but Stevens suspects this won’t deter her regulars, who once built snow bleachers out back to watch the Super Bowl outside in February.

“Why not? We live in Maine, you know?” Stevens says. “I think we can just put on our thickest socks and our big boots and get out there, because what else are you going to do? This might be the hardest time in our lives, but if we don’t keep doing fun and cool things for people, then what are we even doing?

Al Fresco, All Frosty

For full details, check the websites or call the following restaurants, taprooms, and other businesses offering outdoor dining, drinking, and gathering spaces this winter. (Want to include your business here? Drop us a line at [email protected] and tell us what you’re up to.)

Bangor Beer Company, Bangor

Outdoor beer garden with firepits and outdoor heaters. Full restaurant menu available (pub food, noodle dishes, sushi).

Marshall Wharf Brewing Company, Belfast

Covered outdoor beer garden with propane heaters and chiminea.

Flight Deck Brewing, Brunswick

Outdoor beer garden with patio heaters and firepits, also blankets for sale. Food truck on site (pub food).

Fogtown Brewing Company, Ellsworth

Outdoor beer garden with tents and propane heaters. Wood-fired pizza oven. 

Tumbledown Brewing, Farmington 

Outdoor beer garden with tabletop firepits and “Solo Stoves” made from old kegs.

Maine Beer Company, Freeport

Covered outdoor beer garden with overhead electric heat lamps. Wood-fired pizza oven.

Bateau Brewing, Gardiner

Outdoor beer garden with bonfire pit. Food truck on site.

Fluvial Brewing, Harrison

Outdoor beer garden with firepits, as well as heated “beer domes” by reservation. 

Batson River Brewing & Distilling, Kennebunk

Reservable, heated “fish shacks” on the patio, seating up to six ($20 for 1½ hours). Full restaurant menu available.

The Boathouse Restaurant, Kennebunkport

Reservable, heated “gingerbread houses” on the deck (come February, they become “love shacks”), seating up to four. 

Gneiss Brewing Company, Limerick

Outdoor beer garden with firepits.

Lubec Brewing Company, Lubec

Outdoor beer garden with firepit and propane heaters.

Funky Bow Brewing, Lyman

Outdoor beer gardens with bonfire pits, plus a skating rink (pond hockey Wednesday–Thursday, family skate Friday–Sunday). 

Oxbow Beer Garden, Oxford

Backyard outdoor dining with firepits. Trail system for Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, and fat-tire biking. Gear rentals available. Full restaurant menu available (pizzas, calzones, salads).

Chaval, Portland

Outdoor seating with infrared tableside lamps and heated greenhouses available by reservation. Also, blankets for loan or sale and hot drinks delivered in thermoses.

Foundation Brewing Company, Portland

Outdoor beer garden with infrared tableside lamps and tabletop firepits.

Little Giant, Portland

Covered outdoor patio, heated with electric lamps.

Little Giant, Portland

Covered outdoor patio, heated with electric lamps.

Lone Pine Brewing Company, Portland

Outdoor beer garden with tents, fire towers, and fire pits.

Oxbow Blending and Bottling, Portland

Outdoor beer garden with firepits and heaters over semi-enclosed tables. Full restaurant menu available. Full restaurant menu available.

Rising Tide Brewing Company, Portland

Outdoor beer garden with firepits and fire towers, plus eight heated “bubble tents,” reservable in 1½ hour blocks with a minimum $60 check. 

Terlingua, Portland

Open-air deck and “margarita garden” with firepit, hanging natural-gas heat lamps, and covered seating.

Thirsty Pig, Portland

Covered outdoor dining huts, seating up to four, with blankets for purchase. 

The Yard, Portland

Heated outdoor “igloos,” seating up to eight, available by reservation ($40 rental for 1½ hours, plus $100 minimum tab). Full menu.

Cafe Miranda, Rockland

Tented outdoor dining area with firepits.

Island Dog Brewing, South Portland

Outdoor beer garden with covered seating and patio heaters.

East Forty Farm, Waldoboro

Private cheese or fondue parties for one to six people, in a converted, screened-in “summer house,” with woodstove. Saturdays only. $50/person. 

Odd Alewives Farm Brewery, Waldoboro

Outdoor beer garden with reservable private firepits. Wood-fired pizza oven.

Tops’l Farm, Waldoboro

Winter raclette dinners (outdoor seatings with private fire pit or generously spaced indoor barn seating). January 16 & February 13. $85/person.

Mast Landing Brewing Company, Westbrook

Heated and air-filtered outdoor “igloos,” seating up to eight, available by reservation (one igloo designated for walk-ups). Food truck on site (sandwiches, pizza, wings). Mobile ordering for food and drink.

SoMe Brewing Company, York

Outdoor beer garden with stand-up heaters, plus blankets and hot drinks for sale. 

York Beach Beer Company, York

Outdoor beer garden with firepit tables and stand-up heaters, plus blankets and hot drinks for sale. 

Read more tips about COVID-friendly winter outdoor hangs!