Albeit arriving later in the season than usual, a sure sign of summer returned to the Charles River Esplanade over the weekend as the Owl’s Nest beer garden kicked off its third season in the park.
Everett’s Night Shift Brewing is again partnering with the nonprofit Esplanade Association to offer a selection of craft beer, wine and non-alcoholic beverages in a self-contained area at Storrow Memorial Embankment Park (Fiedler Field), and although this year’s hours of operation are “still being tweaked,” Matt Eshelman, the brewery’s quality manager, said the Owl’s Nest is currently open on Wednesday and Thursday from 4 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 2 to 10 p.m.; and Sunday from noon to 8 p.m.
But the hours now hinge on staffing food trucks for the beer garden, Eshelman said, following Gov. Charlie Baker’s mandate on Friday that alcoholic beverages can only be served at restaurants and other establishments where food is also prepared on site.
“We’re doing our best to expand staffing food trucks at all times,” he added. “It’s just one more moving piece.”
In keeping with social distancing and safety guidelines, the beer garden’s occupancy has been reduced by about 50 percent, Eshelman said, with six guests maximum permitted at each of the 30 tables, but unlike past years, however, no standing room is allowed.
And while there might be an opportunity to add a few additional tables before the beer garden’s season wraps up at the end of October, safety is now the top priority.
“We want to go slow and be cautious, provide guests as much space as possible and make it work with the new guidelines to make sure that our staff, our customers and the community are safe,” Eshelman said. “We’re doing everything possible to keep people safe and healthy.”
All patrons and staff will be required to wear face coverings whenever possible, and the number of on-site “porta-potties” has been reduced to six from 12 in years past as additional safety precautions.
Night Shift is also strongly encouraging guests visiting the Owl’s Nest on the Esplanade, as well as its Everett brewery and two other beer gardens located on Lovejoy Joy Wharf and near Herter Park in Allston, respectively, to make advance reservations at nightshiftbrewing.com or via the Resy app.
(Per state requirements, this system will also allow Night Shift to notify patrons if someone at one of their locations tests positive for COVID-19, Eshelman said).
Reservations will be limited to two-hour windows, Eshelman added, but parties can stay longer if they are behaving responsibly, and if space permits.
Guests will also be accommodated on a walk-up basis, space permitting, but one member of each party would be required to provide their contact information for contact tracing purposes.
“We strongly encourage reservations as opposed to walk-ups,” Eshelman said. “The whole goal of this is to keep crowds to a minimum…and the Esplanade [beer garden] is such a popular location, so we want to make sure as many people can enjoy the space as possible.”
The Owl’s Nest drew around 100,000 patrons to the Esplanade between early May and the end of October of last year, according to some estimates, but Eshelman doesn’t expect overcrowding will be a problem this year, judging by the turnout for the opening weekend, which he put at around 100 patrons each night.
Michael Nichols, executive director of the Esplanade Association, which continues to receive revenue from the beer garden’s operation to enhance and improve the park in partnership with the Department of Conservation and Recreation, warily welcomed the return of the Owl’s Nest.
“We’re thrilled, but cautious to have the Owl’s Nest back,” said Nichols, who stopped by the Esplanade beer garden on Sunday afternoon. “The tables were nicely spaced out, there was ample shade cover with the umbrellas, and the Night Shift staff was really thoughtful about sanitizing all touch-points.”
Moreover, Nichols added, “We view the Owl’s Nest as an important amenity in the park, but appreciate that Night Shift has been sensitive in prioritizing public health over everything else.”