Romancing Outdoor Dining with Mongolian Yurts
By Beverly Stephen
Want to dine in a yurt? There’s no need to travel to the steppes of Mongolia. All you need is an American Express card to reserve a table through Resy in one of 13 notable fine-dining restaurants across the country. Yurt villages are the latest solution to cold-weather outdoor dining. Think of them as mini private dining rooms or individual nooks seating from two to six. They’re perched on sidewalks, in parking lots, in warehouses, on patios. They’re protected by added security and jerry-rigged systems to lock them down overnight.
Just try to get a reservation at one in the parking lot of Canlis in Seattle. Their 11 yurts are booked through March. “We have the most charming parking lot in Seattle right now,” says co-owner Mark Canlis. “If your options are to stay on a sinking boat or hop on a life raft, this is way more fun.”
Canlis has not offered indoor dining at all during the pandemic but has sought alternate ways such as a drive-thru burger restaurant and a bagel shed to generate revenue and keep its staff of 110 employed. The yurts are its latest effort. Patrons pay $145 for a five-course meal which might include a family-style melted raclette, smores, house-cured meats. Hand- made cocktails and full wine service are available for an additional charge. “We’re more ski village than Mongolian,” says Canlis. “Our biggest yurt even has a fireplace.”
The menu at Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, Colorado, also skews toward Alpine inspiration with a fondue of Harbison and Montasio cheeses and venison loin with wild blueberry, pine, and a venison leg ragu. Brand director Erin Pommer is not worried about winter: “The yurts are designed for winter in Mongolia, so we anticipate they’ll hold up just fine.” He also believes they hold up to safety protocols as parties are separated from each other. “We feel confident that the individual outdoor structure is the way to go,” says Pommer. “Between each seating, the individual yurts will be deeply cleaned and aired out.”
Ironically, Crown Shy owners chef James Kent and restaurateur Jeff Katz were planning an outdoor dining element pre-Covid on the 63rd-floor terrace of the New York City skyscraper which houses their fine dining restaurant. Undaunted by the specter of New York winters and a good measure of skepticism, they envisioned heated seats, blankets, and guests warmed by seasonal libations. The virus struck and that restaurant, to be called SAGA, never opened though they are still holding out hope for a future opening. But now they have their outdoor dining in yurts outfitted with faux fur throws and blankets in their Shy Village on the Pine Street sidewalk.
“We’re incredibly grateful that the city was able to work with us to temporarily close our block so that the servers can safely shuttle food from the kitchen to the yurts during service,” says Kent. The servers are outfitted with down jackets. Now that indoor dining in Manhattan is closed, the yurts are their only outlet. In February, their team numbered 100 and now it’s close to 40.
“But the yurts help ensure we can keep that smaller number employed through the winter,” Kent says. Guests feast on pastry chef Renata Ameni’s laminated focaccia and family-style dishes such as cassoulet and Moroccan lamb tagine, potato gruyere gratin, black bass with saffron rice, and chicories with persimmons and taleggio.
In New Orleans, chef/owner Nina Compton installed Bywater American Bistro’s nine yurts inside a warehouse in keeping with the feeling of the bistro. She decided on a theme celebrating classical French cuisine such as boeuf bourguignon, smoked onion tart, and Lyonnaise salad and the pastry topped truffle soup made famous by Paul Bocuse.
“It’s like a romantic forest,” says Compton. “The yurts are like a private dining room which makes it magical. Couples are coming to celebrate an anniversary or birthday.” With this financial boost, she says “we can keep the lights on.”
In Washington, D.C., Fiola, the flagship restaurant of Fabio Trabocchi, erected its yurts on its spacious patio amidst a forest of seasonal trees, transforming 601 Pennsylvania Avenue into a festive winter village. Each tent seats 4 to 6 patrons. They dine on dishes such as papillote of wild foraged mushrooms with white truffle and Chesapeake crab brodetto from the James Beard award-winning chef for a $135 per person five-course menu.
Other restaurants participating in the yurt village program include Fairfax and Lilia in New York, Arlo Grey in Austin, The Charter Oak in Napa Valley, Swift & Sons in Chicago, Zahav in Philadelphia, The Grey in Savannah, Kann in Portland, Oregon. So, patrons could be dining on Italian food in Brooklyn, Israeli food in Philly, and Haitian food in Portland.
“It’s been really fun watching all the restaurants bring their own sense of personality to the yurts,” says consultant Will Guidara, a founder of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, who masterminded the project. ‘We went to Amex and said, ‘with your support we could be really supportive of restaurants’.”
Amex provided the financial support, Guidara and his team sourced the yurts and each restaurant provided its own interior decoration. The idea came from the yurt village Guidara, then co-owner of 11 Madison Park restaurant, did at the EMP Winter House in Aspen. “Before Covid, it was Covid proof—outdoors in the courtyard outside of the dining room at the St. Regis. The courtyard was kind of a part of the restaurant in summer but was not used in the winter. It was a fun thing to dream about. “ And now the yurt villages are a nationwide reality at the very least through February and possibly much longer.
There are numerous restaurants erecting other types of bubbles, tents, cabanas, plastic cabins, etc. to accommodate winter outdoor dining but none quite have the romance of the exotic yurts. And none are organized as a nationwide program like the yurt villages.
“As an operator right now, anything you can do to keep people employed—anything to keep the band together– is worthwhile,” says Guidara. “Is it enough? No. Enough would be passing the RESTAURANTS Act and giving meaningful relief to an industry harder hit than any other.”
Beverly Stephen, the former executive editor of Food Arts magazine, is a principal of the culinary travel company Flavor Forays. She is the co-author, with Barbara Mathias, of On the Road With Flavor Forays An Insider’s Guide to Four of America’s Hottest Food Cities—Austin, Charleston, Portland and New Orleans.