Temperate Southern California Channels European-Style Outdoor Dining as Pandemic Lingers

A woman dines outside Italian restaurant Davanti Enoteca in Little Italy San Diego. The restaurant has several hundred less customers a day on weekends and its popular bar has been shut down as California attempts to curb the spread of Covid-19. (Courthouse News photo/ Bianca Bruno)

(CN) — Taking advantage of its Mediterranean-esque temperate climate, cities across Southern California have turned to European-style outdoor dining – taking over sidewalks and parking spots – to keep restaurants in business, in an unprecedented public-private partnership that could change California’s car-centric culture permanently.

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to linger, California’s restaurant industry has had to pivot operations due to flip-flopping of the state’s reopening plan earlier this month after it saw a massive uptick in coronavirus cases in June.

With Governor Gavin Newsom shutting down indoor dining across the state earlier this month, after initially doing so only in counties on the state’s “monitoring” list, restaurants were left with two options to stay open: take-out and outdoor dining.

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

Congress has responded to the restaurant industry crisis by introducing a $120 million relief package for restaurants still struggling to bounce back.

Luckily, California’s climate is conducive to host the outdoor-style cafes which take over European streets every summer — even this year as the EU attempts to economically recover from the pandemic.

And Southern California is poised to have outdoor dining year-round until a vaccine is discovered. Restaurants, business trade groups, patrons and pedestrian access advocates told Courthouse News they hope it outlasts the pandemic.

San Diego’s Little Italy Mimics Its Homeland’s ‘al Fresco’ Dining

Davanti Enoteca general manager Carlos Anaya told two women sitting at an inside booth near the hostess stand on a bustling Friday night, “I hate to tell you this, but you have to wait outside.”

A waiter assists a customer during al fresco dining in Little Italy San Diego, where cars have been replaced on the main drag with outside dining reminiscent of the neighborhood’s European namesake. (Courthouse News photo/ Bianca Bruno)

Anaya, who didn’t take off his mask during an interview, used creative aesthetically-pleasing props to ensure social distancing at the popular Italian restaurant, including placing lavender and flowering plants between tables on its patio.

“The worst part is we could not seat at our bar which is like ‘Little Italy’s bar.’ The regulars and neighbors come here,” Anaya said.

“Outdoor dining has helped a lot but we are nowhere at capacity. On an average weekend night we have between 400-500 guests, not counting the bar. Right now we’re at 200 guests on a Friday night,” he added.

Karen Korr, a six-year Little Italy resident, has gone to the restaurant the past two weekends. She said she patronized the neighborhood restaurants when they were only allowed to serve take-out, but “It’s really nice to have a place to go to run into other people in the neighborhood I haven’t seen since social distancing began.”

Davanti Enoteca joined a couple dozen restaurants that have taken over the main drag of India Street in downtown San Diego every weekend this summer through Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s waiving event permit fees to help the historic district’s businesses survive the pandemic.

Little Italy Association Chief Executive Administrator Marco LiMandri said the neighborhood was poised to quickly transition to outdoor dining, as it has been working toward creating a more pedestrian-friendly neighborhood the past five years.

In 2018, the neighborhood opened its Piazza della Famiglia, which eliminated the street separating the main restaurant corridor from the community’s 95-year old Catholic church, Our Lady of the Rosary.

Customers dine along India Street in Little Italy, San Diego, where the street is shut down Friday through Sunday for Al Fresco dining due to the state’s closure of indoor dining as the Covid-19 pandemic lingers. (Courthouse News Service photo/ Bianca Bruno)

“In order for all these restaurants in Little Italy that took us 25 years to accumulate to survive, we have to do outdoor seating, We think for the foreseeable future this is how restaurants will survive,” LiMandri said.

“San Diego has the best weather in the country, we can do this 330 days a year. Even when it starts to rain, we will do outdoor tents and heaters,” he said.

LiMandri said he expects outdoor dining to become a permanent fixture every summer in Little Italy, even after the pandemic is controlled.

“Now we’ve done it, I think this is a game changing event,” LiMandri said.

Circulate San Diego policy director Maya Rosas works on safe streets advocacy and the adoption of the city of San Diego’s Vision Zero goal of eliminating traffic fatalities and severe injuries by 2025.

Rosas said adopting the goal in 2015 required the city to change the way streets were used the past five years, including through parklets, where businesses are allowed to take over parking spaces to expand outside.

At the outset of the pandemic, San Diego joined other California cities, including Oakland, in shutting down streets to extend pedestrian traffic beyond crowded sidewalks.

“The logical extension of slow streets is having retail and restaurants come out into the street and share that space as well,” Rosas said.

“For long-term, I see slow streets and outdoor businesses as a pilot project – we don’t have any previous history of using streets like this to base decisions off. Businesses will see for themselves based on their own receipts if this is a successful policy or not,” she added.

Los Angeles Restaurants Getting By

In Burbank, three city blocks which serve as a major vehicle artery have also been closed to make way for outdoor dining near Walt Disney Studios and ABC Studios.

Patrons dine outside the Fuji Ya sushi restaurant in the city of Burbank, California, where restaurants are allowed to serve guests on the street as part of the Covid-19 health order. (Courthouse News photo/Nathan Solis)

Emily Olsen from the city of Orange ate a shredded chicken taco outside the family owned Guisados restaurant on an outdoor patio. Staff wore face masks and the indoor seating was closed. Large plastic partitions separated the register and kitchen from the public and outside large gaps separated the tables.

“Of course, I’m concerned about the virus, but at some point I know that restaurants are taking precautions. I don’t want to sound like anti-science, because I know the virus is a thing,” said Olsen, pointing to her mask hanging off her ear. “It’s nice to be able to eat at a brick-and-mortar again.”

Businesses forced to close under the statewide health order were forced to rely on sales driven entirely by take-out orders. Outdoor permitting became a viable option for Burbank at the beginning of July and many restaurants say they have seen a slight boost with customers dining in.

Restaurants in Burbank need to apply for a permit to offer that sidewalk and street dining experience. The program is temporary, an experiment for many businesses that were shuttered for months and rushed to adapt to the updated health guidelines to reopen earlier this month.

Guisado’s Armando De La Torre Jr., who co-founded the taqueria with his father and manages multiple locations, says his Burbank restaurant did not apply for that special permit. At least not yet. They’re just happy to see customers return after the lockdown.

“Honestly, it’s better than nothing. Adding outdoor dining is an improvement than just having take-out,” De La Torre said. He jokingly added, “We’re still trying to see if it helps that cars can’t get in and can’t find us organically.”

In Pasadena, 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 once a year.

Diners enjoy Italian food in San Diego’s Little Italy neighborhood July 24, 2020, where outdoor dining has taken over the street to accommodate social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic. (Courthouse News photo/ Bianca Bruno)

Italian restaurant owner Jack Hua said his business tripled in one night, going from $3,000 to $9,000 in gross earnings after he was given the go-ahead to open outdoor dining.

“Everything was full,” said Roberto, a waiter at the restaurant which transformed literally overnight from an operation that was cratering to a place where waiters were rushing in and out of the restaurant to serve diners outside.

Two immigration lawyers who have not had lunch together since February are now talking under their own orange umbrellas above the former lane of traffic near the restaurant.

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

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

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