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Pandemic Prompts Renaissance in Outdoor Dining Turning Restaurants Inside Out

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7 minute read

Paris is famed for its charming sidewalk cafés. The “Paris of the Plains” is more famous for having the most miles of highways per capita — and 40,000 downtown parking spaces — than its walkability or vibrant street life.

But the need for outdoor public spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic is already changing the way we use urban spaces, especially those traditionally reserved for our gas guzzlers.

Kansas City’s Public Works Department has been expediting permits that allow restaurants and bars to expand into sidewalks, street side parking spots and parking lots, a move designed to increase seating capacity while maintaining the social distancing necessary to reduce spread of the virus.

“All around the world, really, we’re seeing restaurant owners taking back space along the street or (in) parking lots because that space is more valuable for customers than cars,” says DuRon Netsell, an urban designer with Street Smarts Design + Build.

The Kansas City-based design firm has worked on projects across the country and created a handy guide outlining some popular projects. Netsell shared the guide during a recent Zoom meeting sponsored by the Crossroads Community Association. 

Kansas City defines temporary dining spaces in the following way:

  • Sidewalk Café: an extension of an eating or drinking place located on a public sidewalk that provides restaurant service. 
  • Street Café: an outdoor dining facility located within areas used for on-street parking that serves as an extension of an eating or drinking place. 
  • Parklet: an outdoor facility located in city right-of-way either within the sidewalk, on-street parking areas or other unutilized spaces and designated as public space. 
  • Parking Lot Dining: an extension of an eating or drinking place in a private parking lot that provides restaurant or beverage service. 

Temporary dining spaces can be delineated by using inexpensive traffic cones, planters or temporary stanchions. The permits are free through the end of the year. The only hard-and-fast restriction is the designs must be ADA compliant. 

“This is an option to really reclaim a lot of space,” Netsell says. “I think it’s going to be a catalyst for a much larger conversation about how we use large public spaces.”

So far, the city has issued 50 permits, granting one to La Bodega, a Spanish tapas restaurant and bar in the Crossroads. A longtime Kansas City restaurateur and an architect by training, James Taylor first fell in love with street side cafés while attending the Tour de France

La Bodega streetside seating.
Kansas City granted a permit for La Bodega to add street-side seating. (Courtesy | La Bodega)

“They would literally take over the street with sidewalk cafés. There was a little danger (being so close to the traffic) but I think people like that, especially since you can add plants, landscaping and barriers,” Taylor says.

This week Taylor is adding a street café that extends from Summit to Jefferson streets. The street café will include a deck with bench seating, pergolas and sun umbrellas. Although the project eliminates five parking spaces, La Bodega gains 36 seats.

Taylor already handles landscaping. To keep costs down, he’s relying on volunteer labor and will repurpose tables, chairs, umbrellas and other materials from his past restaurant ventures that have been in storage.

Restaurants and bars aren’t the only businesses benefitting from outdoor sidewalks, but maximizing outdoor dining space boosts the bottom line at a time when restaurants are operating at reduced capacity.

“We’re trying to gain as much space as possible to maintain cash flow going into winter,” Taylor says. “When it cools down, we’ll have heaters, blankets and a firepit and we’ll do the best we can to create a California outdoor kind of feel.”

Taking the indoors outside

Patios are a natural built-in extension at many restaurants, but those lacking outdoor space are at a serious disadvantage in the current climate since a majority of diners continue to prefer to sit outdoors.

Three quarters of guests at Fox and Pearl are requesting patio seating, according to Kristine Hull, a co-owner with partner Vaughn Good, a James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef Midwest. 

The space also allows Hull, the restaurant’s interior designer, to expand the dining room’s botanical theme with a vine-wrapped pergola and potted succulents. 

Depending on the table configuration, the patio offers 12 to 18 additional seats in partial shade, thanks to the position of the building. “It’s nice because it almost always has a cross breeze, and as the sun is setting, you’re in the shade,” says Hull.

Fox and Pearl outdoor dining
Most guests at Fox and Pearl are requesting outdoor seating. (Courtesy | Fox and Pearl)

Hull, who lives in the neighborhood, sees more people out walking and using urban spaces. But she notes that gracious outdoor living requires navigating more than weather, heat, insects or even mask mandates. 

Recently she had patio guests who were taken aback when a family gathered in the adjacent parking lot on a Sunday afternoon to enjoy mariachi music. 

“I think it’s awesome!” says Good, an audiophile who plays a soundtrack of classic rock, reggae and traditional country inside the restaurant via stereo. “It’s definitely a taste of the neighborhood.” 

Birds chirping, sirens blaring and construction trucks rumbling by are also part of the soundtrack diners enjoy even inside Affäre’s secluded courtyard patio, which is partially shaded by a pergola of vines and greenery and decorated with hanging flower baskets.

The charming outdoor dining space has doubled as a rehearsal dinner and wedding venue. Last week, a TV reporter also used the picturesque courtyard as the backdrop for a grilling segment featuring its house-made German brats and steaks by Morgan Ranch. 

“Based on what you hear in the news, patio dining is what you do,” co-owner and sommelier Katrin Heuser says, who notes Affäre only has outdoor seating for 18 available by reservation-only, and it has been booking up on most nights.

Affare outdoor seating
Affäre’s secluded outdoor patio. (Courtesy | Affäre)

On the other end of the spectrum, Ignite Wood Fire Grill in Lenexa City Center has a built-in indoor/outdoor patio living space that can accommodate up to 100 socially distanced guests at a time. 

The space features six garage doors that are open in good weather, a lanai and seating areas clustered around fire pits and fire bowls. But the space has not been full yet.

With carryout continuing to taper off, this week chef Bradley Gilmore reintroduced happy hour from 3 to 6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and all night on Mondays. 

“We’re trying to make a push to bring people in, and remind our supporters that we have outdoor spaces,” Gilmore says.

The Campground’s owners Chris Ciesiel and his wife Cristin Llewellyn have decided out of an abundance of caution to move its indoors outdoors – and into their spacious sparking lot in the West Bottoms.

“We’re literally trying to take every single vibe and experience of the inside to the outside and keep people as safe as possible,” says Ciesiel, a former registered nurse. “Regardless of state and local mandates, we do not feel that we can dine indoors until at least 2021.”

Their current outdoor offerings include an enhanced patio garden space offering nearly a dozen riffs on classic cocktails and a pared down small plates menu plus a parking lot with a satellite bar structure. 

The parking lot aims for a neighborhood block party ambiance where customers can enjoy natural wines, batched cocktails and sangria.

Redesigning outdoor spaces does not have to cost a lot. Ciesiel and Llewellyn estimate they spent $500 for inexpensive patio furniture from CB2 and IKEA – a good investment for 16 additional seats, they say. 

Located in the shadow of the historic Livestock Exchange, the asphalt stays relatively cool in the evening. When fall weather arrives, it will be time to play on The Campground theme and light up the chiminea, outdoor heaters or the fire pit.

Space collaboration

As coronavirus cases spike, Wendy Guillies remains cautious. 

“Right now, I am not eating inside, only patios,” says Guillies, president and CEO of the Kauffman Foundation.

But at the end of May, after months of staying in, Guillies knew her 89-year-old parents needed a break. Guillies decided The Somerset Wine & Cider Bar located in the Rosehill Gardens Landscape Center was a safe place.

The garden center features a grassy area with a fountain that may soon serve as a stage for an Kansas City Symphony concert but was perfect for her parents to enjoy a dinner served by a single masked and gloved server while listening to live music waft their direction. 

The live musicians played on a small outdoor stage outfitted with patio tables spaced at intervals among clusters of bedding plants, perennial flowers and planters. Cindy Reynolds recently hosted a live Motown-style disco band and was overjoyed when she found her guests dancing beside their tables. 

The Somerset Wine & Cider Bar
Musicians play at a small outdoor stage at The Somerset Wine & Cider Bar. (Courtesy | The Somerset Wine & Cider Bar)

“They stayed table side in their own area. (The guests) just laughed and waved at each other. I’ve been surprised just to watch how people have stepped up and done what they needed to do,” she says. 

The Martin City venue is open Fridays and Saturdays the first weekend in May until the last weekend in September. Chef Carmen Cabia, owner of El Tenedor food truck, offers authentic Spanish tapas.

Reynolds strongly suggests reservations, which cost $10 per person to be applied to the first drink purchase. Reservations are preferred because it gives staff adequate time to reconfigure the space for proper social distancing and “help us get our arms around probably 85% of what will happen that night,” she says.

Meanwhile, the 45-acre winery in Paola, Kansas, that she owns with her husband and winemaker Dennis Reynolds has been busier than ever during the pandemic.

“I used to think we had too much open space and not enough indoor space, but now it’s our strong suit. You can pick your own acre and stay with your own pod,” Reynolds says.

Jill Wendholt Silva is a James Beard award-winning food editor and freelance writer. Among her many food-related pursuits, she is the co-host of the Chew Diligence podcast and works with Affäre and Fox and Pearl. You can follow her at @jillsilvafood.

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