What it's really like to dine outside in winter on Long Island

You never forget the day you discover you’re Norwegian, and for me that day came not long ago, after the revelation was seeded by an awkward Zoom happy hour (family edition) and some unexpected 23andMe results. Stunned by this addition to my Ashkenazi heritage, I decided to make up for lost time, embarking on a crash course in Norwegian-ness. Immediately, I became transfixed by one of the country’s most cherished traditions, friluftsliv—an unqualified embrace of outdoor living, even during winter’s coldest months.

Which is how I found myself on the outdoor patio at Salt in Merrick in early December. (The place has since closed for the season.) Diners under a heated tent were being serenaded by a two- piece band playing "The Way You Look Tonight," while I was at a table overlooking the bay. The temperature was 42 degrees.

"There’s nothing she can do, they’re bolted to the deck," said my tablemate, having heard me whine about our server’s refusal to surround us with a tight circle of standing heaters. "Besides, you have two already. Just finish your drink."

"It’s not working," I protested, meaning the Pumpkin Spice and Everything Nice martini I’d ordered in hopes that the dynamic duo of Jack Daniel’s and Fireball would blunt winter’s chill. When my clam chowder arrived, I had to fight the urge to pour it down my shirt. And by the time a very fine-looking Pat LaFrieda burger seductively bathed in Vermont Cheddar was set before me, even people at the next table could see me shivering. Meanwhile, my companion was blithely slicing through his fingerling potatoes and roast chicken as if we were inside the tent enjoying "Come Back to Me" and swaying along. "How can you not be cold?" said I in desperation.

"You know, you’re not a very good Norwegian," came the reply.

No, I thought. But I will be.

All this was about more than fitting into my genes. By December, the airwaves were jammed with news that Americans’ best chance of maintaining some normality amid the pandemic lay in taking everything outside, including restaurant dining. National Geographic, in its now-seminal article "Is Friluftsliv the New Hygge?," even wondered if Norwegian outdoorsiness might become a trend, which seemed plausible. Well before the coronavirus, this mindset had already spread across much of Europe. Cafés with heated terraces are now as much a part of the Parisian winter, for example, as bûches de Noël.

Left: Outdoor dining at Bar Frites in Greenvale. Top: Well-crafted salads such as arugula with Asian pear, blue cheese and ruby-red pomegranate seeds or an iconic iceberg wedge have appeal year-round at Bar Frites. Bottom: Efficiency in motion at Bar Frites in Greenvale. Photo credit: J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Later in December found me in the courtyard at Bar Frites in Greenvale. Temperature: 36 degrees. "Don’t you love the way the flames lick up?" I said of the stately pyramidal torch heater nearby. "It produces everything but heat. Pull it closer."

"If it gets any closer, we’ll have to set a place at the table for it," replied my tablemate. "Stop complaining." As it happens, I’d been spoiled by another of the Poll brothers’ restaurants, The Bryant in Huntington Station. Every evening, the steakhouse typically lights no fewer than 16 towers of fire on its patio, each sending its flames high into the sky, an executive decision I’d been grateful for while dining there, happily destroying a steak to the accompaniment of Bordeaux and firelight.

But the nightly display has stand-alone appeal as well: Even when merely glimpsed in a drive-by, The Bryant’s illuminations seem grander and less kitschy than most holiday light shows, a sort of Rockefeller tree for the confluence of routes 25 and 110. No wonder I’d seen families posing in front. No one was posing at Bar Frites, although there were lesser pleasures.

Left: A steak dinner at The Bryant in Huntington. Top: The outdoor setup at The Bryant. Bottom: French onion soup at The Bryant. Photo credit: J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Before me, a plate of humble greens and tomatoes had been brought to quivering life by the restaurant’s Maytag blue cheese dressing. "I’m not really complaining," I said. "This salad is fantastic. I just wish it wasn’t so cold."

"Says the man who ordered an iceberg wedge."

"There’s no hope for these fries, though." I plucked a shoestring from the cone and stuck it through a hole in the heater grating in hopes of reviving it. "You can’t serve these in winter. Why don’t they switch to steak fries?"

Because this isn’t Chez Ore-Ida?" offered my companion, calmly savoring a perfectly medium-rare hanger steak that sliced like butter, or rather indoor butter. Our own square of butter was cold enough to laugh in the face of any knife. "You just have to learn what to order."

True, true. Successful outdoor dining, I quickly discovered, depends in no small part on making proper food choices, as anyone who’s ever had a hot toddy by the fire or put baked potatoes in their pockets will tell you. French onion soup, I can hear you scream, kept piping hot by the thermal miracle of molten Gruyère. Yes, and chili too, as well as any menu item that includes the terms "flambé" or "cast-iron skillet." And don’t overlook the brothers Glenlivet and Glenfiddich, both on very good terms with the bartender at Bar Frites. Contrary to popular belief, a snifter of Scotch will do nothing to warm you up, but I won’t say anything if you won’t.

The temperature had warmed up to 48 degrees when I was seated at a sidewalk table at Leilu in Huntington. "The Girl from Ipanema" emanated from the sound system, and I was feeling adventurous. "I don’t know what Devil Balls are, but I want them," I said brightly to the server, who assured me they were excellent. "Good for you for dining alfresco," she added a few minutes later while delivering two large pecorino-flecked meat- balls that indeed turned out to be excellent.

"You know, when Italians say that someone is alfresco, they mean he’s in jail," I replied. "And I guess you could say that dining outdoors in December might be considered a punishment, although if I were in jail, at least I’d have a roof over my head." While I didn’t expect an enormous laugh, a chuckle would have been nice. Still, I adored the woman for strategically positioning two propane heaters at my table, one sending a blast of heat to my face, a second steaming my posterior. It felt a bit like being inside a Ninja Foodi, but at least I was warm.

This time, I was the one slicing through a juicy strip steak with ease when I wasn’t shoveling heavenly mashed potatoes or creamed spin- ach into my mouth by the forkful. If in the end it was a less-than-perfect evening, I blame not Leilu but New Street. Its parade of too-fast Dodges and Subarus, periodic car alarms and chilly breezes from the occasional ambulance or re truck do not a leisurely dessert of mocha macarons and French press java make.

In short, atmosphere matters.

Outside Seventh Street Cafe in Garden City, for instance, the thoroughfare was closed to traffic, and heavy curtains were cleverly hung to muffle any remaining street noise, offer substantial wind protection and preserve the restaurant’s pastas from death by hypothermia.

Seventh Street Cafe in Garden City.

Seventh Street Cafe in Garden City. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

"I’ve eaten in alleyways, I’ve eaten in parking lots, I’ve eaten in places I never thought I’d eat," laughed a regally dressed woman at a neighboring table, making conversation with me, a sort of peace offering after she’d asked the waiter to reposition the space heater between us in a way more favorable to her.

"Who does she think she is?" I stage-whispered, silently promising myself to return the heater to its original spot as soon as the woman left to powder her nose. After downing my third French onion soup in a week, however, plus most of the bread basket and a deftly executed plate of calamari, I was in no mood for conflict.

"What do you think of the sea bass francese?" asked my genial waiter after I’d had a few bites of lemony goodness. He looked so cold, I hesitated to tell him that the kitchen had sent out chicken francese. He looked at me in horror, his face drained of whatever blood it still possessed on a frigid night. Apologizing profusely and offering to correct the error immediately, he lunged for the plate, but I grabbed it first, the kitchen having francesed me into switching my allegiance from fish to chicken.

The only thing I’d like, I said, motioning him closer, is for the heater to be turned back this way. "Sorry, it’s a little cold over here, too," I said to the woman at the next table, who looked me up and down before deciding that I was the one at fault. "Maybe you need a bigger coat," she said.

Which brings us to the other thing my people know something about, dressing for winter. Google "friluftsliv" and it won’t be long before you see a Norwegian nattering on about layers and there being no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. The Land of the Midnight Sun, I’ve learned, is a place where no one even thinks of going out in the cold unless they’ve invested in long underwear, a Nordic-pattern knitted wool sweater, mittens, scarf and hat, thick socks, crampons, moisturizer and extra batteries. My excitement at being Norwegian was suddenly tempered by the realization that I might not be able to afford it.

French toast stacked with bacon and eggs at Park Avenue Grill...

French toast stacked with bacon and eggs at Park Avenue Grill in Amityville. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Cut to Park Avenue Grill in Amityville and a weekend brunch on the back patio, clad in Uniqlo HEATTECH long johns ($25) with matching long-sleeve T-shirt ($20), cashmere beanie ($20), lined gloves ($15) and scarf ($10). I don’t know what temperature it was outside, but it was 107 degrees inside my coat.

"You know," I told my son, "this might be the best frogs-in-a-hole I’ve ever had."

"Guess you should have tried eating it outside sooner," he replied.

"And yet ..."

"Oh no."

"No, I mean, the French toast, the eggs, the bacon—even the hole is perfect." My clothes had made me warm, the hot cider with Jameson even warmer and the overhead heater, warmer still. "But there’s still this little voice inside saying it’s too cold to eat outside."

"Then stop listening to yourself."

"I can’t just stop listening to myself."

"Sure you can. I haven’t listened to you in years."

Insubordinate? Yes, but he had a point. You can change what you eat, where you eat and what you wear, but you still won’t want to eat outside this winter without changing your attitude.

"Bungalows By the Sea" at Gurney's in Montauk.

"Bungalows By the Sea" at Gurney's in Montauk. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

And that’s pretty easy to do at Gurney’s resort in Montauk, at one of the open-air "bungalows." Each is afforded some warmth and privacy by the careful positioning of hedges, decorative branches, party lights, plexiglass windshields, a firepit and overhead heaters, all of it on a cliff with stunning views of the Atlantic at sunset.

"Pig in a blanket?"

Having by that point covered myself in sheepskin throws I’d collected from every chair in the vicinity, my first thought was that the server was referring to me. I was relieved, then, when she brought forth a large, plump Wagyu sausage, a pig so big it could have used a few extra blankets itself.

Short Rib Sliders and Wagyu sausage pigs in a blanket...

Short Rib Sliders and Wagyu sausage pigs in a blanket are just some of the bites served at Gurney's in Montauk. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

"You look cold," she ventured with a worried expression.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Are you cold?"

"Why do you say that?" I looked at her, she looked at me, a gull squawked.

"It’s just, you’ve been here a long time, so I thought I’d check."

A long time? I looked at my phone. Sixty-five minutes. She was right! I’d been sitting by the ocean for 65 minutes. In winter. The temperature was 38 degrees, wind chill factor excluded. I’d been enjoying it all—oysters, burrata with figs, a single pig in a blanket.

By the time I departed, it was nighttime, and my face stung from the freezing gale-force wind. But I walked toward the edge of the overlook anyway, as calm and intrepid as an ice-fishing Nanook of the North. Leaning over the railing, I peered hard at the black ocean, wishing I could see Norway. Or better yet, that Norway could see me.

Restaurant information

BAR FRITES: 400 Wheatley Plaza, Greenvale; 516-484-7500, pollrestaurants.com

THE BRYANT: 100 Walt Whitman Rd., Huntington Station; 631-923-3321, pollrestaurants.com

GURNEY’S MONTAUK: 290 Old Montauk Hwy., Montauk; 631-668-2345, gurneysresorts.com

LEILU: 10 New St., Huntington; 631-944-3111, leiluhuntington.com

PARK AVENUE GRILL: 178 Park Ave., Amityville; 631-598-4618

SALT (closed for the season): 3100 Whaleneck Dr., Merrick; 516-442-7470, saltonthewater.com

SEVENTH STREET CAFE: 126 7th St., Garden City; 516-747-7575, seventhstreetcafe.com