Temperatures have plunged below zero and the sun has long since set, but everyone at the east-end bar Dundas & Carlaw is outside on the patio. Cold beer flows under the warm glow of a heat lamp as the bundled-up crowd gathers around the game unfolding on the curling rink set centre stage.
Well, sort of. The curling rink is actually a synthetic eight-metre curling sheet and the game being played on this night is more akin to lawn bowling as filtered through a lens of Canadiana. Still, it draws a crowd, much to the delight of owner Ruben Vina. His bar is an oddity in that it has only 600 square feet of interior space but 1,600 square feet of patio, so keeping the outdoor space – nearly three-quarters of the real estate – open as much as possible is key.
Last winter, they tried tarping, but "it wasn't really aesthetically pleasing." Mr. Vina has high expectations for the coming months: The Winter Olympics are approaching, curling is in full swing and the heat lamps are on, although they can cost up to $100 a night to run. "Even if we come out net even, it's space we weren't using before and we've increased our cool factor," he says. "I think the model is changing – you have to be Instagramable, you have to be dynamic and unique."
Torontonians love patios. Every spring, the slightest sign of warm weather is greeted by hordes of bar goers yearning to drink outdoors and publications flooded with lists upon lists of the best places to do so. But come fall and winter, much of the city goes into hibernation. Patios are shuttered, scarves are donned and a warming drink indoors seems to be all anyone wants.
But, on London rooftops, on the sidewalks at corner bistros in Paris, and in bars across Europe, patrons cuddle up outdoors in the colder months under the soft glow of heat lamps. So why not here? Yes, Toronto winters can be frosty. But the city's real estate prices are also sky high, and restaurant and bar profit margins are slim, leading some operators to question whether all these outdoor spaces that are so popular come March, really need to be abandoned in the late fall.
"It's a huge added value to have a patio," says Ori Grad, whose CHI Real Estate Group specializes restaurants and bars in the GTA.
Mr. Grad explains that because of this added value, operators buying an existing business with a licensed patio often have to pay inflated prices to secure the location and, in some cases, pay higher rent as well. "It's very hard to get patios and the city's not very easy about issuing patio licenses, so they come at a premium."
In 2017, huge increases to patio licensing fees were proposed, raising the ire of many operators who wondered whether they could afford the fees if they could only run for half the year. The hikes, as well as new rules for the outdoor spaces, were sent back to the drawing board for more work by a joint meeting of the city's licensing and public works committees in December.
One of the rules flagged for review addresses the length of time patios can be open. Even if operators want to remain open all year, some patios aren't eligible and are required by law to be removed by Nov. 15 in order to allow for snow clearing.
To complicate matters, current bylaws actually allow for certain temporary "year-round" enclosed patios, but specify that these can't be used from Nov. 1 to April 1.
In the face of hurdles from city regulations and the costs and logistics of keeping people warm outside, most operators historically have just not bothered to extend the season. "Toronto's lacking fun in a lot of ways," Mr. Grad says. "Other cities make it a lot easier for restaurants to open and to provide a space for people to enjoy themselves."
Michael Webster, one of the co-owners of College Street's booming Bar Raval, tends to agree, noting that he faced a lot of red-tape when working to keep the bar's side patio open year-round for the first time last winter. Everything from the canopy materials to the precise placement of the heat lamps had to be negotiated and approved.
"We're still not allowed to have music even at a low level on the patio," Mr. Webster says, lamenting one remaining sticking point, "but our focus was to keep it warm, and keep it an environment where it felt similar to the inside."
At the Drake Hotel's Sky Yard, one of the city's most popular rooftop bars, the focus is also on keeping guests warm and cozy during the winter. (Rooftop bars can operate throughout the year.) What's a bright open expanse in summer becomes a more enclosed and intimate space in winter, complete with heated floors and a change in decor. "We always want to give that seasonal vibe," says Chris Simpson, the hotel's general manager. "So in winter, the colour scheme goes from bright to darker, warmer fall colours."
But all the heat lamps in the world and cozy decor touches can't fully mask subzero temperatures in the depth of winter. "It can be tough," says Anthony Rose, who also keeps his Dupont Street restaurant Big Crow's outdoor dining area open all year. "We have full on heating – baseboard heating, on top heating, we try really hard. It's done really well but it can still be chilly in January and February."
Ultimately, for operators braving the subzero temperatures, the goal is to create and maintain a lively atmosphere throughout the cold winter months – whether it be on an uncovered patio with curling as at Dundas & Carlaw, or a cozy enclosed space as at Bar Raval. "The patio for us at Raval was very much a Spanish thing," Mr. Webster explains. "They have these modest bars and cafés with beautiful patios. It's just very jovial and in Toronto, it's hard to find that kind of a place. So it's less about understanding if you break even on it in the winter – it's more an energy move."