Two-table Dining

HAPPY EATER

May 05, 1991|By ROB KASPER

When it is a beautiful day I want to eat outside. I think.

But once I get to the restaurant and sit at an outdoor table, I sometimes change my mind. The sun is too hot. Or the breeze is too strong. Or I have problems with the birds and the bees.

Then I want to be seated at a table inside.

Folks in the restaurant trade have a label for such behavior. It is called "the two-table syndrome." It is a common condition, said Sandy Kautz, office manager of Peerce's Plantation, especially in the spring.

Diners start out wanting to be at one with nature. They sit at one table enjoying the view. But then nature gets nasty. The wind starts moving their meals around. And the once intrepid outdoorsmen want a comfy, indoor table, right away.

Such table switching is fine, Ms. Kautz said, when there is a surplus of seats. But when the house is full, the displaced diners sometimes have to rough it, and wait for an empty table in the bar.

Accommodating weather wimps is just one of the perils of operating an outdoor dining spot.

Recently I learned about this and other hazards of outdoor dining by talking with a few folks who work in restaurants known for their spectacular views. In addition to Ms. Kautz at Peerce's, where diners sometimes see deer gambol on the nearby grounds of the Loch Raven reservoir, I spoke with Olga Diaz, manager of Taverna Athena, one of the Harborplace restaurants that overlooks Baltimore's Inner Harbor. And I talked with Betty Jettmar, manager of Carrol's Creek Cafe, an Annapolis restaurant where customers gaze at sailboats slipping through the water.

This was a difficult assignment for me. The day I telephoned these people to ask about the dark side of outdoor eating the weather was gorgeous. The sky was bright blue, the clouds puffy, the breeze benign. I would have preferred to be sitting outdoors at one of their restaurants, munching on appetizers, sipping wine. Instead I was trapped at my desk, gulping black coffee and biting my fingers.

But the mood of the restaurateurs helped me out. To them, coping with the exigencies of outdoor dining is part of the job.

Like handling the problem of butter meltdown. Some days the sun is so hot it melts the pats of butter placed on outdoor tables. To prevent meltdown you put ice on the butter pats, said Ms. Jettmar of Carrol's Creek. However, when meltdown is already in progress, all you can do, according to Ms. Diaz at Taverna Athena, is quickly replace the soft stuff with hard stuff.

The best way to handle a muscular wind, they said, is to play the heavy. You weigh the napkins and tablecloths down with silverware and salt and pepper shakers, said Ms. Diaz. To prevent food taking flight, you serve it on heavy plates, said Ms. Kautz.

As for troubles with the birds and bees, the restaurateurs said they were best handled by the age-old solution to problems of this nature: You shy away from them.

Bees seem to buzz outdoor diners only a few weeks in the fall, said Ms. Jettmar, and then only at lunch.

"The bees go to sleep at 5 o'clock," she said.

As for the birds, Ms. Diaz said she has had trouble with one bird who likes to perch on the Constellation, the historic warship moored right in front of the restaurant. Sometimes the bird perches on the one part of the boat's rigging that overhangs one of the restaurant's outdoor tables.

The bird sings. But at times, she said, it has dropped more than tunes on the customers. When that happens, the sometimes sullied diners head for another table, and usually their next table is indoors.

About the only thing that seemed to shake the composure of these otherwise unflappable outdoor restaurateurs was the mention of the word "thundershower."

"I dread the days when you can't decide whether it is going to rain or not," said Ms. Diaz.

She went on to detail the elaborate plans the restaurant has for coping with precipitation. If rain looks certain, only cocktails and appetizers are served to customers seated in uncovered areas. When rain begins to fall and customers start to scurry for cover, waiters and waitresses know they are supposed to rescue any exposed entrees.

Despite the plans, Ms. Diaz described the effect a sudden shower can have on a crowded outdoor restaurant as "chaos."

Even if your outdoor seating area is covered with an awning, as it is at Peerce's Plantation, you can't be certain you have outwitted the rain, Ms. Kautz said.

The only way your customers can get wet is when it rains sideways, she said.

And as people in the outdoor dining business know, it only rains sideways at prime time: "8 o'clock on a Saturday night," Ms. Kautz laughed. "You can count on it."

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