Unless there’s lightning or hail, when given the option by the host at a restaurant, I almost always choose a table outdoors. Even in the heat of summer, I prefer the outdoor option. I have a favorite patio spot at a few treasured local establishments. And now that we have two sons, the al fresco option is often a more practical one as well. Our little rascals can be a bit louder and messier in the open air. The pang of “parent guilt” for the mess we leave behind is weaker when the crumbs pile up on concrete.
While my family hasn’t eaten “in” at a restaurant in months due to pandemic restrictions, I long for pasta in the courtyard at Luigi’s, a coffee drink with live music on a bench at Cafe Smitten, dinner on the terrace at The Padre or brunch on the east-facing patio of Dot x Ott. Frankly, I wish more of my favorite local restaurants had outdoor seating.
While traveling in Denmark a few years ago, during what would be considered frigid temperatures to a Bakersfield person, I nearly fainted with pure joy upon seeing crowds fill up the patio of every cafe, warm blankets carefully laid on each available chair. I quickly saw that the Danes make the most of their outdoor space. Partly, this is due to a belief that time outdoors is a salve. This belief is held so strongly it even influences caretaking.
Many Nordic parents put their baby or toddler outside — even in freezing temperatures — for their lunchtime nap. Parents believe that time outdoors keeps children healthier, especially during winter when illnesses often spread. When Nordic parents scoot inside a shop, the prams, or carriages, are left lined up outside (still inhabited by their tiny occupants). The fresh air is good for children, they reason. Perhaps they’re on to something.
Blessed with more moderate weather here, one can enjoy being outdoors most of the year. I’ve always thought that our own city leaders should do more to encourage outdoor dining. From an urban planning perspective, it encourages engagement with pedestrians and bicyclists and makes for a more lively street scene. Outdoor seating creates a more pleasant experience for diners and helps restaurants meet their bottom line in a business with tight margins.
And now, eating outdoors may just be a panacea for restaurant owners and patrons during the pandemic.
In other California cities, restaurant owners voiced concerns about meeting the state’s guidelines for reopening, including social distancing measures, which mean a reduction in dining room capacity. Essentially, to keep diners safe, restaurants need much more space to serve food under these rules. Despite the addition of takeout, many owners are finding it difficult to make enough money to remain afloat.
In response, officials in the Bay Area have discussed taking over street space for restaurant use, and the City of Berkeley put that discussion into action. Last week, Berkeley leaders announced legislation to fully close many of the city’s streets. The plan is to repurpose these streets as seating areas. This enables restaurants to reopen safely and preserve the city’s “vibrant restaurant scene,” according to an article on the change in the online food and dining guide, Eater San Francisco.
According to Eater SF, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín says that the plan was inspired by news coverage of the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, which announced last month that it would turn its plazas, streets and squares into “a vast open-air cafe” to allow its bars and restaurants to serve patrons during the coronavirus crisis.
Photos of Vilnius inspired a similar idea in San Jose. Last week Mayor Sam Liccardo and Councilwoman Dev Davis proposed “Al Fresco San Jose,” a program in which “businesses — particularly restaurants — could be allowed to take over parking lots, shut down parts of streets and siphon off areas of a public park for open-air services,” the San Jose Mercury News reported.
Other California cities, such as Santa Barbara, are instituting similar measures. The Santa Barbara City Council recently allowed sidewalk and curbside dining, effectively closing two blocks of the main shopping district on State Street.
I’d also like to applaud our local leaders for taking quick action to institute similar measures. Last week, the Bakersfield City Council voted to allow restaurants and other businesses to close off streets, sidewalks and parking lots to set up seating and vending areas.
Following state-level restrictions on restaurant owners to limit capacity indoors, our City Council saw outdoor dining as a logical next step. They followed the centuries-old lead from towns, hamlets and cities around the world and will allow traffic flow to take a backseat to more dining in the open air.
Amid the despair of a global pandemic, there are also opportunities. Our world may feel upside-down from the outbreak, but this could be one small bit of silver lining.