New outdoor dining takes picnicking to a new level

Northeastern student SeungYeop Kang, left, disinfects a table before eating with Deev Patel inside the outdoor dining tent by Speare Hall. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

In a typical year, Northeastern University’s massive dining operations in Boston serves thousands of meals an hour during the lunch and dinner rush. Under a pandemic, the meals are still coming. But the dining halls have moved outdoors — and the socially-distanced food services look different than they ever have before.

With space in dining halls limited, the university has put up large white tents as an alternative. Buffet meals are no longer served. Instead, pre-packaged, grab-and-go meals are the norm. Cheeseburgers remain a big seller, along with bottled water, fruit cups, Kigo bowls, and fried chicken sandwiches.

Eating under a tent had never been tried on campus before on such a large scale. But on one sunny, nippy day—typical of New England in September—students were embracing the new eating venues.

“I think that having this area where we can eat outside has been very successful,” said Sunny Kang, a second-year student, as he finished a burrito under the tent at Speare Hall along Huntington Avenue.

Photos by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

His friend Deev Patel, a second-year student studying pharmacy, re-positioned his face mask after removing it to eat nachos, and added: “The ventilation is great and I like how you’re able to wipe down the tables after you’re done using them.”

The tents resemble those typically seen at wedding parties, with see-through plastic sides. Tables are spaced sufficiently apart, and red and white signs made at Northeastern’s sign shop remind people to maintain a safe distance. Rolls of paper towels and spray bottles of disinfectant sit at the ready.

Of course, a meal on a university campus is never just about the food; it’s a bonding experience, a chance to decompress, scroll through Instagram or hang with friends. Throw in a global pandemic and suddenly it becomes a matter of safety and keeping those same friends healthy and spaced apart.

That explains why the university recently erected a tent in front of the John D. O’Bryant African American Institute in highly trafficked West Village. There are now five tents for eating and relaxing on the Boston grounds, with plans for one more.

Northeastern graduate student Rachel Bargabos eats lunch inside the outdoor dining tent behind Robinson Hall. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

The largest structure is near the Willis Hall apartment building on Leon Street near the heart of campus. It can hold about 48 people when the side flaps are open, allowing for air circulation. When the sides are closed it technically becomes an indoor space, limiting capacity to 25 people in accordance with state guidelines.

Students can also be found dining underneath two additional tents near the Curry Student Center by Robinson Hall, which is where Ayushi Shirke was enjoying a sandwich and drink with her friends.

The second-year physics and computer science student from Massachusetts said the biggest differences she has seen between now and her first year was the ease of being able to go back and forth to pick up food as hunger warranted, and having that unexpected run-in with a familiar face.

“But because of the COVID-19 restrictions, it’s just not possible to do that anymore,” she said.

Photos by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

While Shirke appreciates the outdoor venue and the dining experience overall, she would recommend one important change.

“Since the meal swipes were so much more valuable last semester when we could go multiple times and get more food, it might be better to allow more of an ability to go several times and just get more for your money’s worth,” Shirke said.

Her friend, journalism major Lily Elwood, agreed, saying that she also missed the spontaneity of running into people she knew.

I miss being able to sit down in the dining hall, because if you sit there for long enough, enough people will come up to you and you see all your friends,” she said. “But the tents have been able to recreate some of that.”

Faced with a choice of being inside or outdoors, Elwood didn’t hesitate.

“Oh, outdoor definitely. Especially now that the weather is nice,” she said.

This being New England, that will change soon. Plans are being made to heat the tents when the temperature drops. Warm air will be blown in via electric heating units positioned outside of the tents, allowing them to remain comfortable through December. The hope heading into the new year is that the governor of Massachusetts will further lift indoor dining restrictions as he did recently, permitting larger crowds to eat indoors. 

That’s a good thing for Katelyn Stone, who was watching a video and eating fried chicken in the Curry Student Center.

“It’s windy and I’m from California, so I get cold very easily,” she said. “Otherwise I’d be outside.”

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