At 7:30 a.m., I check the temperature outside (16 degrees) and lay out my clothes on the bed: long underwear top and bottom, two pairs of socks (the outermost of bulky wool), turtleneck, Woolrich ski sweater with snowflake pattern (apt), warm winter hiking pants, REI nylon rain pants, warmest wooliest hat, lined mittens (made from a cast-off wool sweater), down coat that reaches past my knees, wraparound scarf that will wrap three times in a pinch, and snow boots from Canada.

I have selected my inelegant, mismatched outfit for warmth, and when I put it on in early evening, I look like a Teletubby posing for Glamour magazine’s Style DON’Ts.

I am not hiking up Mount Washington in February. I am not going snowmobiling in the County. I am simply going out to dinner. Emphasis on “out.” I will be eating dinner on an open-air patio. In February. At night. In Maine. (OK, yes, they’ve got propane heaters blasting and heated cushions for me to sit on. Still …)

All summer long, as the coronavirus closed indoor restaurant dining rooms around the state, or greatly reduced their capacity, Mainers and tourists ate outside, where the virus is less transmissible. With one glorious sunny day following another, and many streets shut to traffic to make room for al fresco dining, that was no punishment. Now, each morning, I steel myself as I listen to the day’s forecast for words like “wind chill” and “arctic blast.”

My partner, who grew up in Vermont, it must be said, is not looking forward to our dinner date. He owns some 20 books about Ernest Shackleton’s legendary expedition to the Antarctic (“These were guys sitting on ice floes with knives and ropes and canvas for months and months and months on end, and they made it. They were by themselves at the bottom of the world. No means to communicate. No radio. No nothing.”) His idea of a good time is vacationing in Iceland in December or Hay River, Canada (the “Hub of the North”) in early March or Nantucket in November. But dinner outside in Maine in February? He’s not sold.

When I tell him that afternoon that the temperature has gone up to a balmy 27, he responds with sarcasm: “Great. It’s almost freezing.” By the time we are seated and eating dinner on Chaval’s outdoor patio in Portland’s West End, the temperature has again reversed course. It’s 21 degrees.

As for me, it’s a relief to be worrying more about the cold than the coronavirus.

People dine in the private greenhouses at Chaval on a cold February evening. Portland residents Phuc and Sue Tran dined there in January. “That felt great.” he said. “It was just me and my wife sitting inside in our little greenhouse. It’s about as cozy as it can get. There are little Christmas lights on. There is a little space heater on. You’re seated at your own little table. You almost forget you are in a pandemic until the server shows up with a mask on.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Your mother was right

Restaurants in Portland and elsewhere in Maine that are offering outdoor dining are doing their best to combat the chill with such new pandemic amenities as space heaters, fire pits, propane patio heaters, temperature-adjustable heated seat pads (many made by Portland-based company Hüga) and individual heated greenhouses (Chaval), “chalets” (Evo) and oceanside “igloos” (Cliff House in Cape Neddick). These last may cost you extra. In the case of Chaval, for instance, the $25 fee for your own private greenhouse goes to cover the cost of Portland’s new $18 an hour “hazard” pay for employees (which is still being fought out in court).

Even with these crush-the-cold measures in place, restaurants, as well as customers who’ve dined outdoors themselves, recommend you dress warmly. Chip Brewer, a Cape Elizabeth resident in business development and sales, ate at Terlingua on Washington Avenue in late January. “We dressed as if we were going ice fishing,” he said. “I was kitted out in long underwear. We’ve lived up here a long time so we knew what to do.”

Every Mainer interviewed for this story had their own version of that statement. (Apparently, the cliche is true. We are a hardy folk.)

Portland tattoo artist and writer Phuc Tran and his wife, Sue, ate outside on the patio at Woodford Food & Beverage on Forest Avenue in late November. “It wasn’t bad,” he said. “We were bundled up. We had coats and hats and gloves on. It felt like camping. But I love camping.”

Karen Beaudoin, a kindergarten teacher from Durham who has enjoyed several winter meals on the deck at Bruno’s Wood-Fired Pizzeria in Bath, offered this assessment: “There are people who know how to dress in Maine and people who don’t. If you show up in stilettos and no hat because it’ll ruin your hair, you are not going to be warm.”

Instead, don the ultimate Maine accessory, suggested Portland nurse Morgan Brockington, a passionate foodie: “Get your L.L.Bean down coat.” Also, dress in layers, don’t forget your hat and wear “really warm socks. Just like you are going ice skating or cross country skiing.”

“A little bit of wine always helps too,” she added.

I can second that. If you dine outside at Chaval this winter, get the hot toddy. The cheery words alone seemed to diminish the cold, and the drink – rye, amontillado sherry, honey, tea and spices – warmed me from inside out.

Despite the snow as tall as I am piled against a tree on Chaval’s patio, the staff failed to stick to the dress code. One waiter wore a cotton T-shirt, blue jeans and a baseball cap. Was he out of his mind? No more so than the table he waited on next to us – make that 6 feet away – where two young women were sipping tall, pink, summery drinks with lime wedges over ice, a lot of ice. I turned to them, incredulous, “You’re not cold?” They giggled.

May I take your order?

That’s me – food editor Peggy Grodinsky. We amused ourselves between courses (when you’re cold, the wait seems longer) by exhaling to see our breath. Photo by Joe Pollender

Stew, soup, chowder, hearty braises, warm apple crisps, bowls of chili, pot pies. That’s what I expected to see on the menu. Warming, winter food. In fact, Chaval’s menu didn’t look markedly different from what I remember of it in ordinary times (that’s not a complaint). It’s winter-focused, sure, peppered with items like beets, citrus, scallops, celery root and cauliflower, as well as the restaurant’s beloved coq au vin for two. But cold items like deviled eggs, plates of cured ham, pâté and salads are featured, too. Chef de cuisine Kirby Sholl confirmed my impression.

“We tried to keep the menu as reflective as what we see ourselves as a restaurant as possible,” he said. One concession the kitchen did make to the great outdoors: After the waitstaff reported garnishes sailing off plates when coastal winds blew, it eliminated some. For the record, the fronds of fennel on my dish – Maine diver scallops with spicy lamb sobrassada, citrus-braised fennel, roasted shallots and fennel cream (an appealing study in muted chartreuse, creamy foam and golden brown) – stayed put.

Some of the dishware at Chaval turned out to be a stroke of good fortune in the wintertime outdoor setting. The patatas bravas, for instance, arrive in an adorable miniature cast-iron pot, which keeps them piping hot. “We’ve used that serving vessel for the patatas bravas since the day we opened,” Sholl said. At the end of December, Brockington treated her parents to dinner in a Chaval greenhouse, a Christmas present. “We got the coq au vin,” she said, “which was really nice because it was hearty and warm. It comes in a big Dutch oven and it was the perfect temperature.”

The tea not so much; it cooled quickly. Eating outdoors elsewhere, both Beaudoin and I ate cold pizza after the first slice. “I would say I eat a little bit faster,” reported Tran, the father of a 7- and 10-year-old, “but as a parent I’ve perfected the five-minute meal. I think if people are not parents, they might not be used to the brisk pace. When they were infants, it was, ‘Can I eat this one-handed in one minute?’ Now, it’s a leisurely five minutes, and I can use both hands.”

But maybe I’ve got this backwards. “We don’t let the weather dictate what we are ordering,” Brewer said. “We treat it like a normal night out.” He and his wife used to live in Amsterdam, where it never stopped raining. “What we learned was, you can’t let the weather dictate your choices. I mean a hurricane, yes, but not your everyday weather. So we applied that here.”

Beaudoin hadn’t given much thought to shaping her order to the forecast. “However, I did order red wine vs white so that it wouldn’t be cold!” she wrote an email. Then, she had a counterintuitive tip. “Hot food might not be the best idea as it cools off so quickly. The salad we shared was perfect.”

When it came time to order dessert, I was ready to veto anything that came with ice cream. In fact, it suited the cold, as we were easily able to spoon up the scoop of bourbon ice cream atop our chocolate-banana financier before it melted to a puddle.

Emily Wilson and Emily Bruce, both of Portland, dine outside under heaters at Little Giant in Portland on a cold evening in February. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The regulars

According to a survey of 2,010 regular restaurant diners conducted in late December/early January, only 21.6 percent of eaters who had been dining outside earlier in the season planned to continue to in colder weather. (The study was undertaken by the Eat Drink Lucky local newsletter and the organizers of Maine Restaurant Week, using emails from their lists of readers and customers.)

That’s something Petite Jacqueline co-owner Michelle Corry understands; Petite Jacqueline offered a charming outdoor street patio earlier in the season, but these days is open for indoor dining only. Corry and her husband, chef Steve Corry, have had drinks outside, she said, but a whole meal when it’s 30 degrees out? No thank you. She guessed that for more intrepid diners it was probably a “Once and done. ‘I did it. I tried it. I wanted to be supportive. And now I’m done.’ ”

Actually, every diner but one interviewed for this story was ready to repeat the experience, in some cases surprising even themselves. “A year ago if someone had said, ‘Do you want to sit outside in the middle of winter and eat?’ I’d have said, ‘That’s what inside is for,’ ” Brewer said. ” ‘That’s what fireplaces are for.’ ” But now, weekly, he sits around fire pits in the yards of friends and eats outside at restaurants, too. He’s come up with a term to describe the phenomena: “fire-pit culture.”

Portlander Melissa Knoll wears warm boots and sits on a battery-heated cushion made by Portland-based Huga company while dining outside at Chaval in Portland in mid-February. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

For her part, each time Beaudoin has eaten on the deck at Bruno’s she’s become progressively more daring, weatherwise. When she first tried it in the fall, the place was just setting up heaters. She returned for lunch with a friend in late December. “With the heater going, it was just warm enough to tolerate.” She enjoyed the experience enough – there was a band playing! – to attempt a colder early evening in February. “I would definitely do it again because I’m still not comfortable eating inside, and it’s nice to be waited on.”

The exception? Jeff Holmgren, who divides his time between Portland and North Haven, says he eats out nearly every night when he is in Portland. “I ate outdoors when it was pleasant to eat outdoors. That ended in November.” Eating on a restaurant patio one night in December “was awful,” he said. “The heat lamp was close. There was wind on the back of my neck. What the hell was that? Who needs it?” Same experience, different restaurant, also late in the season. “Why should I shiver?” he asked rhetorically.

But Holmgren is eating indoors this winter, where he says the coronavirus protocols and safety practices are more than adequate. He wants other Mainers to know “it’s a pleasant and possible experience — the emptiness of it, the ease of reservations, and the parking has been great!”

Homeward bound

After nearly two hours of sitting outside (probably overeating, it’s easy to do when you’re trying to stay warm) and surprised by the steady stream of outdoor diners, Joe and I were ready to go home and reacquaint ourselves with central heating. But I was also ready to do it all over again. As the jolly fellow who’d answered the phone at Chaval when I’d asked about reservations had promised, it had been an adventure. Also a new topic for our stale pandemic conversation. Our usual daily excitement? Guessing what time the mail carrier will arrive.

I asked Reesa Martin, who works front of the house at Chaval, whether she expected outdoor winter dining to outlast the pandemic. “Realistically, even in some world where corona is completely gone, it’s opened up people’s awareness to contagious diseases in general,” she answered. “There are going to be people who never feel comfortable the way they did before. Being able to provide people with a space they feel safe and comfortable in, you can’t put a price on that.

“There’s a certain novelty to it that people enjoy,” she continued. “It’s a little fun. As long as everybody is on board and wearing enough layers, it’s really not bad. We’ve had really good feedback from customers, from the staff. It’s fun in its own crazy way. It’s the restaurant industry. It’s always a little off kilter.”

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