Going out for a meal and maybe a few drinks with friends or family has long been a relaxing, enjoyable way to catch up. But with the pandemic, the safety of even that simple, everyday act came into question. Sitting indoors for the time it takes to enjoy a meal became risky, and many restaurants were forced to close -- some temporarily, but others for good.

Even when most lockdowns ended, restaurants' problems were far from over. Many diners remained skeptical that it was safe to come back inside, and others were just plain tired of being indoors. Let's look at a couple of trends that can help restaurants solve these problems head-on in 2022.

Four smiling people toasting and dining outdoors at night.

Image source: Getty Images

Outdoor dining

This should come as a surprise to no one: Experts have long said that outdoor dining is much safer than indoor as far as the virus is concerned, which also just seems like common sense. The key to solving the problem of skittish diners will be in finding ways to make them more comfortable, and outdoor dining will be hard to beat as an option.

That sounds pretty simple, but of course, putting it into practice is often a bit more complex. Many restaurants simply don't have the real estate they need to make outdoor dining happen. That's why cities are changing zoning laws to let restaurants make use of sidewalk and street space, as appropriate, for outdoor dining permanently. Cities want their businesses to succeed, so this could be the start of a nationwide trend of addressing this issue legally.

Some restaurants are getting creative all on their own. For example, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, DiGiulio Brothers Italian Café purchased and tore down a neighboring restaurant that had closed to build a covered patio.  

With outdoor dining space becoming so valuable, expect real estate with the space for it to become highly sought after by anyone looking to open a new restaurant going forward.

Digital dining

Real estate investors generally want to hear about customers coming in and dining in person, since that tends to require more physical space. But even restaurants that are doing great dine-in business need to keep up with customer demand from all directions to stay profitable. Be it takeout, drive-thru, or delivery, an increasing number of diners are ordering their meals via app.

In fact, according to Boston Consulting Group, digital ordering now represents over 30% of all restaurant transactions. That's huge, so expect to see any restaurants that aren't already maximizing this angle to do so soon.

That could mean making sure customers can easily order from restaurants on a wide variety of apps as well as their website for takeout or delivery. It also means restaurants can use part of their commercial kitchen space as a "ghost kitchen," meaning it would be used to prepare completely different meals for other brands.

So, for example, you could go to an Italian restaurant for a meal, and part of its kitchen might be devoted to making sushi dishes for a separate brand. Customers could order either the Italian dishes or the sushi digitally for delivery or takeout. This trend is particularly interesting to real estate investors, as it could lead to a need for more kitchen space in restaurants going forward.

Restaurants are meeting diners wherever they are

Both outdoor and digital dining present a lot of opportunities for restaurants looking to broaden their horizons and make the most of their real estate. That might mean creating a beautiful outdoor dining space for diners who are hesitant to eat indoors or just plain sick of being cooped up inside. And now that many more people have discovered digital dining, we can expect to see an increasing number of restaurants adapt to meet those desires as well -- often in creative ways that benefit them.

That so many restaurants have managed to survive this far is pretty impressive. Going into the new year, real estate investors can take comfort in knowing that the creativity and determination that's brought them this far is showing no signs of slowing down.