A Little Slice of Café Life

Diners have lunch on the street in Old Pasadena, a pleasant perk from the novel coronavirus as cities block off lanes of traffic to accommodate restaurants and state-mandated outdoor dining. (Courthouse News photo / Bill Girdner)

With concrete traffic barriers alongside, asphalt underneath and a red umbrella above, their table in what used to be a traffic lane seemed like a little piece of the Continent. 

“It’s lovely to sit outside. It’s very European, more informal, more friendly,” said Moira McManamy Moe, out for lunch in Pasadena’s Old Town. “Better if they close the whole street. Honest.”

“In France and Italy, when it’s warm, there’s outdoor seating,” she added. “It seems so luxurious.”

With all of California suffering through a long lockdown and many enduring on takeout food, the city moved in what by any measure constitutes extraordinary speed in blocking off two lanes on either side of Colorado Boulevard, the main street in town and the route along which the Rose Parade and its floats, horses and baton twirlers march every year.

Jack Huang who owns Sorriso’s, an Italian restaurant where Moe and her companion are having lunch, said he has been trying for 26 years to convince Pasadena to allow more outdoor tables. It took a pandemic to kickstart the change.

“It happened in three days,” he said. He saw the neighboring city of Glendale pushing restaurants into the street a couple weeks ago and within a few days, Pasadena officials were closing off traffic lanes next to sidewalks. He was given a permit to push more tables onto the asphalt on a rush basis. “No application fee,” said Huang. “Free on everything, good to go.”

His business tripled in one night, going from $3,000 to $9,000 in gross earnings. “Everything was full,” said Roberto Diaz, a waiter at the restaurant which transformed literally overnight from an operation that was limping toward insolvency into a restaurant humming with business, where waiters were rushing in and out to serve diners outside.

Last Friday and Saturday nights, he said, every indoor table was moved outdoors and was occupied.

In restaurant economics, though, the bar is what generates a big chunk of the nightly income. And the bar at Sorriso’s remains closed under the California governor’s current lockdown formula. “It’s about 60% compared to this time last year,” said the owner. “Every day we’re open, I’m negative, still sucking water.”

At a national level, restaurants have been hit with one calamity after another. While a byzantine complex of local orders and state mandates have strangled their businesses, fear of contagion has pervaded customers. The very means of transmission for the disease is the same as the central theme of restaurants and bars, social contact, the presence of others.

An overall estimate of losses to restaurants as a result of the pandemic totals $120 billion so far this year, as tabulated by the National Restaurant Association, while roughly 8 million out of 15 million workers in the nation’s food sector have been left without work.

In California, with the nation’s largest economy, a nascent reopening was hit first by recurring demonstrations during June that took over downtown areas, and then by the resurgence of the pandemic which continues to take its toll. In early July, food joints throughout California were just getting back into rhythm with indoor dining and entertainment, when the second wave of disease hit. Governor Gavin Newsom turned a “dimmer switch” earlier this month, and shut down shopping malls, indoor dining, bars and churches.

He then corrected what he called a misinterpretation of his order and said businesses could ply their trades outside, with the result that hairdressers, manicurists and fitness trainers moved into the open air, along with restaurants throughout California.

But the bandwagon of café life has not been jumped on by all. The ongoing state of dread has led a good number of restauranteurs to reject the same initiatives that are rescuing others.  In the heart of old town Pasadena, where historic buildings line the boulevard and a Mediterranean Revival style city hall rises nearby, three sushi restaurants are having nothing to do with outdoor tables.

The owner of one said she considers outdoor dining risky for passersby as well as her staff, given that diners do not wear masks. And since her family business now survives on a high volume of takeout orders, she does not want to lose the parking spaces directly out front.

The contrasting uplift in the mood at Sorriso’s, where pizza, pasta, salads and sandwiches are served, is evident in the staff and diners. Two immigration lawyers who have not had lunch together since February are now talking under their own orange umbrella on the tarmac.

“I’m glad to be out of the house, finally,” said Ruben Martinez with an office nearby.

“It sends a different message,” said Glenn Kawahara who practices in Los Angeles. “Like — we’re OK.”

Those dining as well as the owner were hopeful that the new rules would stick around. “People love to be outside with the umbrellas and the plants,“ said Huang.

Moira McManamy Moe and Jeff Hernandez in Place du Trocodero, Paris. (Photo courtesy Moira McManamy Moe)

Moe ordered a grain bowl while her companion, Jeff Hernandez, was having the rib-eye burger. Both are retired from the Department of Water and Power in Los Angeles and have been largely confined to their home for weeks. “At last we can come out,” said Hernandez, “better than eating out of a styrofoam container.”

With their meal arriving, Moe added, “It gives us an opportunity to focus on the good things that could come from this unfortunate Covid virus… If they could get a couple canals.”

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