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Al Fresco eating: Peninsula cities debate post-pandemic outdoor dining

Uploaded: May 13, 2021
by Sarah Klearman

In June of 2020, as it became clear how significantly California's restaurants were going to be impacted by the pandemic even after the initial shutdowns were lifted, the Peninsula's municipalities began exploring how they could help restaurants in their communities survive. Across the Peninsula and the state, the solution to a ban on indoor dining took similar shape: bringing dining rooms outside.

That meant giving those restaurants adequate space. In San Carlos, the first city in San Mateo County to permit outdoor dining, city council members voted to close Laurel Street, one of the city's main thoroughfares, to cars, allowing restaurants a carefully controlled expansion into the road itself, according to Mayor Laura Parmer-Lohan. Some businesses built neat, roofed parklets; others simply set up tables and chairs al fresco in the space directly in front of their storefronts, giving Laurel Street something of a European feel.

Unmasked diners eat outside by the strip of restaurants on University Avenue on June 27, 2020. Photo by Lloyd Lee.

"I go for walks frequently through the neighborhood and downtown to see how things are going, and… any given evening, families, friends and business people are gathering and enjoying a meal together (outside)," said Parmer-Lohan.

As in many communities, the closure has proved popular among both patrons and merchants, according to Parmer-Lohan. Among restauranteurs, it's perhaps more than popular: many see the flexibility they've been granted around outdoor dining as having essentially saved their businesses, according to Derek Schuette, general manager of Taurus Steakhouse, which sits along the 700 block of Laurel Street in San Carlos. Outdoor seating will remain a crucial part of Taurus's business for the foreseeable future, he thinks.

"I just think it's going to be the new normal for a while," Schuette said. "Even come June 15 when it's all set to open at 100%, there will be so many restauranteurs who simply cannot adhere to that, because we don't have the staff (to serve customers both indoors and out)."

Beyond that, Schuette said, a substantive portion of Taurus's clientele say they do not feel safe eating inside, and he does not believe that a general lifting of capacity restrictions will change their minds. And it's not just Taurus's clientele base: restaurants along Castro Street in Mountain View, also currently closed to vehicle traffic, are currently voicing the same concern, according to Mountain View Chamber of Commerce President & CEO Peter Katz. Plus, he said, many restaurants view their outdoor seating as something of an insurance policy against future shutdowns.

Pedestrians walk by Ristorante Don Giovanni and St. Stephen’s Green customers dining at outdoor tables placed on the street in downtown Mountain View on July 2, 2020. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

"The biggest fear that these businesses have is that they're going to gear up for something and then get told the rules are different," he said. "They've done that several times already, it's so extremely costly for them to pivot in that direction. It's not just… turn the lights off, turn the lights on."

In Mountain View, as San Carlos, the street closure has been popular with community members, too, Katz said: many of them have subsequently voiced their approval for a more permanent closure. The Chamber is in continual dialogue with its membership as well as city leaders regarding the closure of Castro Street and its tenure, according to Katz.

"The closing of Castro — or keeping it closed, if you will — is not a yes-no decision, either," he said. "In fact, if we are going to keep Castro closed, we have to invest in Castro."

That might mean additional lighting fixtures, seating or other infrastructure, Katz said; he named a roster of other variables the city and chamber membership are considering, including how a permanent or quasi-permanent closure of Castro Street might impact traffic patterns, parking supply and business for nearby retailers who are not in the restaurant business.

California Avenue, also currently closed to cars, might benefit from a similar kind of assessment, according to La Bodeguita del Medio Owner Michael Ekwall, who said the closure had been "a lifesaver" for his restaurant.

Diners eat at tables on the street along California Avenue in Palo Alto on June 25, 2020. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

"I would like to see Cal Ave really advance its aesthetic… if it was more attractive, it might be more of a draw, and a permanent closure might help that," Ekwall said, adding he knew the city was working under budget constraints and had other agenda items to address. "Cal Ave is only three blocks long. Imagine if you had a really beautiful median with trees — almost a park-like setting — that could really set off the neighborhood. It's not inexpensive, but I think that would be beneficial to the area and the community."

Still, like Katz, he knows city leaders will need to assess variables like traffic patterns and parking. And he knows not every business owner shares his opinion: some in the community have said they believe the closures have had an adverse impact on their businesses, including Peninsula Creamery's Rob Fischer and Mike Stone of Mollie Stone's Market, the Palo Alto Weekly previously reported.

"When you close the street and let one or two restaurants have the entire street, everyone else is kind of hung out to dry," Fischer said of the closure of University Avenue, another of Palo Alto's main thoroughfares, during an April city council meeting on the topic.
The fate of street closures like California Avenue, Castro Street and Laurel Street is something that must be considered through a long term lens, San Carlos's Parmer-Lohan said.

Laurel Street will remain closed to vehicle traffic through September; in the interim, there's much for the city to discuss. San Carlos City Council is in the middle of discussing its budget, which will likely include some funding for Laurel Street and the rest of downtown, according to Parmer-Lohan; it also expects to soon hear from a subcommittee assigned to Laurel Street's closure about what modifications might benefit the street.

Customers fill Bistro Vida’s outdoor tables for lunch in downtown Menlo Park on June 9, 2020. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

"This is a long-term endeavor, not a short-term thing," she reiterated.

In Mountain View, the "first steps" toward assessing Castro Street's future are already being taken, according to Katz, in the form of surveys; community conversations and public hearings will soon follow. Given the "complexity of the issue, love for downtown and strong opinions" in Mountain View, there likely won't be a singular solution that makes "100% of people happy," he added. Still, the city "knows the gravity of these issues," Katz added, something he's encouraged by.

"There are so many stakeholders and variables (involved) that we all are going to have to make some adjustments. That's one thing the pandemic showed us — that we can adjust," he said.
Local Journalism.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by commonsense, a resident of Professorville,
on May 17, 2021 at 10:23 am

commonsense is a registered user.

University Ave. well landscaped - trees, planters, grass, etc. - would be fantastic and the overwhelming majority of PA citizens seem to want it. Please don't debate this for the next ten years. Just do it!

Posted by commonsense, a resident of Professorville,
on May 17, 2021 at 10:23 am

commonsense is a registered user.

University Ave. well landscaped - trees, planters, grass, etc. - would be fantastic and the overwhelming majority of PA citizens seem to want it. Please don't debate this for the next ten years. Just do it!

Posted by Mark Dinan, a resident of East Palo Alto,
on May 17, 2021 at 11:16 am

Mark Dinan is a registered user.

The closure of small numbers of streets to create pedestrian friendly boulevards is the single best thing to come out of COVID. University Avenue, California Street, Castro Street, etc are all 100x more interesting places to visit with the new configuration. I can't imagine any legitimate reason to go back to the old way, and businesses and customers all want this new layout.

Posted by Peninsula Reader, a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights,
on May 17, 2021 at 1:42 pm

Peninsula Reader is a registered user.

Love the street closures. People can drive around a block. Keep the outdoor seating etc.

Posted by Alex, a resident of Barron Park,
on May 17, 2021 at 3:08 pm

Alex is a registered user.

So some business owners "believe" it has had an adverse effect on their business... and y'all are reporting on it like they've done studies and have actual data proving it. I'd say be better, but this is pretty par for the course in Palo Alto "journalism"...

Posted by William Larsen, a resident of Crescent Park,
on May 20, 2021 at 7:37 am

William Larsen is a registered user.

What happens during the rainy season when the seasonal temperatures drop and the winter winds start kicking up?

Will people still be dining outdoors and will this adventure justify closing off all of the main streets to cars?

Posted by Carla, a resident of Downtown North,
on May 20, 2021 at 12:04 pm

Carla is a registered user.

William Larsen:

It rains a whole of 6 days our the year nowadays, to exaggerate a bit. In the little that it rains, yes, everyone migrates indoors; but, really, our area has the most fantastic weather even in the winter time.

In order to increase the quality for life for the community, yes, it is worth closing the streets even in winter time when, and if, it rains.

Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 20, 2021 at 12:49 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

Not just rainy weather, but I for one would not sit outside for lunch when temps are in the 90s, even in the shade. Evening al fresco dining on hot days, but forget the middle of the day, I choose a nice air conditioned indoor dining area.

Posted by Gaz, a resident of Menlo Park,
on May 20, 2021 at 5:47 pm

Gaz is a registered user.

I support expanded outdoor dining and blocked street traffic in many areas. I think it's a big plus, and our weather is quite nice most of the year. Heaters may be necessary, but we get very little rain.

Posted by Samuel Jackson, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on May 20, 2021 at 5:53 pm

Samuel Jackson is a registered user.

There is no defensible reason not to make this permanent. Small investments in our communities that enhance welfare and community, support local businesses, and contribute to a walkable and inviting environment.

Make it happen!!!

Posted by GreenTurtle, a resident of Gunn High School,
on May 21, 2021 at 12:30 pm

GreenTurtle is a registered user.

I most heartily support the continued closure of California avenue. I also support Molly Stones and suggest that there are many other ways to arrive there. I can't even imagine how wonderful it would be to have trees and pathways on California avenue instead of the lanes of traffic. Wow, that would be amazing!

Posted by Dick D., a resident of Crescent Park,
on May 22, 2021 at 1:57 pm

Dick D. is a registered user.

With social distancing rules being relaxed, can't the outdoor dining tables be moved closer together and allowing one way traffic on presently closed streets, sharing the street between diners and autos?

Posted by panative, a resident of Midtown,
on May 22, 2021 at 3:30 pm

panative is a registered user.

I initially loved this idea, but just yeesterday I had a conversation with a long-time small business owner on University, who strongly believes that keeping the streets closed will be the death of more locally owned business. I trust the business owners on this - they do have the data because they see their sales figures every day. I want to live in a town with street level retail/dining establishments. So I've changed my mind. I'm going with the business owners on this issue.

Posted by Chris, a resident of University South,
on May 27, 2021 at 11:40 am

Chris is a registered user.

PA City Manager is now recommending reopening University on 7/6.

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