Kate Whipple, left, and Julie Nickerson have a laugh on the patio at the Foreside Tavern & Side Bar in Falmouth on Wednesday afternoon. The pair said they were taking advantage of warm daytime temperatures while dining. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Caroline Teschke used to eat out nearly every night before COVID-19 began shuttering restaurants in March, rarely sitting down at a table before 8 p.m.

A sign calls for social distancing on the patio at Foreside Tavern in Falmouth. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

These days, she still dines out two to three times a week. But now she seeks outdoor dining options, which this fall has meant eating much earlier than she ever thought she would.

“I never thought I’d be doing the early bird special, but I find myself reserving tables for 5:30, to take advantage of the not-yet-falling temperatures,” said Teschke, 74, of Portland, a regular customer at Little Giant on Danforth Street. “I have found places that have fire pits or heaters, and the tables are well-spaced. I enjoy it and will continue to eat outside, like a lot of people.”

The term “early bird special” usually conjures up images of retirees who make a 4 p.m. reservation so they can get home in time to watch “Jeopardy!” and turn in for the night. But because of the pandemic, dining out earlier has become a more widespread preference. It’s at least partly because people are seeking outdoor dining for safety reasons and would prefer to dine al fresco in relative warmth – relative being the key term in November in Maine.

Restaurateurs and diners also say the pandemic has made it easier for people to eat out any time of day, because they don’t have a daily commute, are working a flexible schedule from home or aren’t shuttling kids to activities. They may be dining out earlier just because they can or because they’re bored at home.

“I think it’s really changed the way people eat during the day at restaurants. I waited on a table yesterday where two couples were eating dinner around 3 p.m. They had drinks and they lingered,” said David Turin, owner of David’s Restaurant in Monument Square in Portland, which has outdoor seating. “We’ve seen a dramatic increase in people dining at lunch, instead of just grabbing a quick bite and getting back to work. People are determining their own time frame and eating their bigger meal earlier in the day.”

Even in larger cities, where later dining is common, restaurants are seeing early birds, the Wall Street Journal reported recently. The desire to dine outdoors is a big part of that. The National Restaurant Association reported that outdoor dining made up 44 percent of daily sales at full-service restaurants in August, the most recent period for which numbers were analyzed.

Turin also has indoor seating at his Portland location, but most people are choosing outdoor tables these days, as COVID-19 cases spike. Turin and more than a half dozen other restaurateurs around Greater Portland interviewed for this story said their outdoor dining business has seen plenty of early birds lately. Warmer-than-usual November temperatures have helped fuel that, they say.

About 50 Portland restaurants have received permits from the city to continue offering outdoor dining into the winter. At Little Giant, owner Ian Malin has heaters in place now and is also building a roof over a courtyard seating area to keep snow and rain at bay. And to keep outdoor diners coming whatever time of day they choose.

The patio at the Foreside Tavern & Side Bar in Falmouth hosts late afternoon guests Wednesday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

If people do continue eating outdoors in December and January, the early bird trend will likely continue for a while, especially since COVID cases keep going up and there’s no end to the pandemic in sight.

“I think people have more flexibility now, so it’s easier to eat earlier if they want to,” said Malin. “I think when things are back to a more 9-to-5 schedule, people will get back to their regular routines.”

At Brickyard Hollow Brewing Company in Yarmouth, the outside dinner crowd at the restaurant’s heated patio has been thinning out by 7:30 p.m. most nights, earlier than usual, said Brendon Medeiros, operations manager. Most people request outdoor seating, he said.

“The people coming in are much more spread out during the day,” said Medeiros. “It’s not unusual to see people eating at 5 p.m. or, on Saturdays and Sundays, maybe 2:30 or 3 p.m.”

Many people are taking advantage of reservations during the pandemic. That way they know they can get a table where they want and when they want it. At Dunstan Tap & Table in Scarborough, most reservations and walk-ins lately have been between 4 p.m. and 6 pm., said Jennifer Brenerman, owner and general manager. She thinks people are trying to come early and eat outdoors to get their fill of dining out before frigid temperatures and snow set in.

Most restaurants have a much smaller seating capacity now because of state guidelines on spacing, and some only have small patches of sidewalk or street on which to put outdoor seating. That contributes to earlier dining times, some restaurant owners say, because the reservation book fills up fast.

Rachel Darke, a server at Little Giant in Portland, talks with Joanna Crispe of Bristol and her mother, Caroline Teschke of Portland, at their table on Thursday evening. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“People will take an early reservation because the later times are full,” said Will Lavey, an owner of The Blue Spoon on Munjoy Hill in Portland. He said the restaurant currently has about five tables outside and about four tables inside.

At the Foreside Tavern & Side Bar in Falmouth, manager Kate Waxman says the restaurant usually sees an earlier crowd when darkness begins setting in earlier in November, but she does think people coming to eat outside nowadays are doing it earlier. In past years, outdoor dining at the restaurant in November was not offered.

On Tuesday, there were a dozen or so diners at the Foreside Tavern’s outdoor patio around 4:30 p.m. when temperatures  were in the low 60s. Joanne Higgins of Falmouth and Jennifer Dunn of Windham made a reservation for 4 p.m., to take advantage of the warmer temperatures and fading sunlight. They had considered 3 p.m. but thought 4 p.m. seemed “not so crazy early,” said Higgins.

“We hadn’t seen each other in a long time and so we planned this, when we saw the weather was going to be nice, and we knew we wanted to come early,” said Higgins.

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