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About this blog: So much is right — and wrong — about what is happening in Palo Alto. In this blog I want to discuss all that with you. I know many residents care about this town, and I want to explore our collective interests to help ...  (More)

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Will winter outdoor restaurants work?

Uploaded: Nov 13, 2021
Will the restaurants with their outdoor eating sections survive during the winter? Will California Avenue, the city's second downtown, continue to have the street closed until spring to accommodate restaurants, while retailers continue to complain because they are losing business and some are closing?

Will we really want to dine outside during the winter months, which city officials are betting on?

Outdoor dining was popular this summer, with the seated area protected by partial tents to ward off the wind, hot sun and now the occasional rains. With twinkling lights, these restaurants became popular, and attracted residents, because we liked eating out -- outdoors. It was a help in avoiding covid. It was also, I suspect, frequented by those who had one or two hots left to go.

While the restaurants are doing reasonably well, retail store owners complain that their businesses are losing money. And that means city revenues will slump.

City Manager Ed Shikada and the council approved of the closed-to-traffic-outdoor-eating plan, but my guess is that it was because the city was making money from the restaurant sales. So why change a revenue enhancing concept?

Pumped up with three COVD-19 vaccines, including the third D-variant one, I am now comfortably eating indoors. The ambience differs from restaurant to restaurant; outside each dining area looked the same --the plastic overhead, a few bushes curbside that hid the view of the street. And now that it's colder and a bit drizzlier, I prefer a warmer place.

I noticed Sunday night that fewer people were sitting outdoors while inside tables were relatively full. I hope the city manager' and council's "betting" decision about closing Cal Ave to traffic this winter will not hurt the restaurants but I fear it will.

My other concern is how will retail survive in both the downtown business and Cal Ave areas? Council was told tax revenues from there two business areas were better than last year, which is great.

A couple of years ago, downtown was a thriving place, morning, noon and night. People were strolling through the streets. Now downtown has a lot of closed businesses and big empty buildings, and, to me, is no longer what it was. Even Restoration Hardware, one of the retail stores I loved to wander through, is moving to Stanford. Fewer business employees work (and lunch) downtown.

What plans does the city have in mind to attract more businesses? What is Plan B? Do they have specific goals? How long will it take?

Are there ways to lure more people downtown? A companion free dinner at a restaurant? A 10 percent once-a-month business district discount if you get a free card from the city?

And why, in the time of a dwindling business district, are city officials still planning to impose a business tax, which means businesses will just hike up the price of goods that we will all pay?
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Neal, a resident of Community Center,
on Nov 14, 2021 at 6:51 am

Neal is a registered user.

That's a no brainer. Winter outdoor dining will NOT work.

Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Nov 14, 2021 at 7:29 am

Online Name is a registered user.

The owner of Menlo Park's Bistro Vida has started a small outdoor farmers market every Weds. from late afternoon to until 8 or 9PM to lure people downtown. Los Altos now has the big new Food Hall launched by Google zillionaires and the city-sponsored seasonal afternoon/evening Farmer's Market to do the same.

I happened to be running an errand downtown on Thursday with a friend and we were amazed at all restaurants closed for lunch on a sunny day as well as all the empty stores. We went into one big restaurant to ask for table and the said they were closed for lunch and that their lunch business has been seriously declining for years since our "leaders" let big companies like Palantir have their own company cafeterias.

We and the owner remain appalled at the city's clueless hand-wringing now after their years of igoring restaurants' pleas to ban corporate cafeterias since their whole downtown "plan" has been attracting big companies. Shades of their having ignored all the displaced family businesses at Town & Country.

Posted by DianaDiamond, a resident of Midtown,
on Nov 14, 2021 at 10:00 am

DianaDiamond is a registered user.

Neal -- I agree but why are our city leaders and staff convinced this outdoor plan will work? Someone please answer me that. -Diana

Posted by Marion Davis, a resident of Los Altos,
on Nov 14, 2021 at 11:18 am

Marion Davis is a registered user.

Uh...dress warmer and/or avoid outdoor dining when the weather is bad?

Posted by Palo+Alto, a resident of Downtown North,
on Nov 14, 2021 at 2:33 pm

Palo+Alto is a registered user.

Worked last winter.

Posted by Jason, a resident of Monta Loma,
on Nov 14, 2021 at 4:05 pm

Jason is a registered user.

Do we have any idea if reopening the streets will help retail? How's retail doing on non-closed streets?

Posted by Neal, a resident of Community Center,
on Nov 14, 2021 at 4:59 pm

Neal is a registered user.

Diana, our CC is a group of pretenders. They pretend to solve problems. They have never run a restaurant, but they think know what's best. The CC should confer with the restaurant owners and retailers and see what they really want and need. As for me, I've done a lot of camping and know that dining outdoors in lousy weather is a real drag. I doubt plastic enclosures and propane heaters are enough to convince many people to dine outdoors. Maybe some restaurants will survive, but they won't thrive. Don't forget the collateral damage done to retail as a result of street closures.

Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 14, 2021 at 6:38 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

Some of us will not mind putting on an extra fleece, sitting by a heater beneath twinkling lights on a mild, dry evening. The same probably won't be said on a wet, windy evening.

The great unknown is the weather for this coming winter. If we have a dry winter, it will be busy. If it is wet, windy, or smoky, people will stay home or go where they can dine inside.

Posted by Annette, a resident of College Terrace,
on Nov 14, 2021 at 6:57 pm

Annette is a registered user.

I think Bystander's prediction is right. I also think that an all-around win is possible and again refer our City leaders to Los Altos.

Suggestion: make a list of those restaurants that you want to see survive and be sure to either go to those places (or order take-home) as often as you did before Covid disrupted your routine. Ditto the retail stores you like. Palo Alto would be diminished if its best restaurants and stores were gone.

Posted by Phoebe Heron, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Nov 16, 2021 at 2:08 pm

Phoebe Heron is a registered user.

"Some of us will not mind putting on an extra fleece, sitting by a heater beneath twinkling lights on a mild, dry evening. The same probably won't be said on a wet, windy evening."

Since many Palo Altans consider themselves outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy the elements, what's a little wind or rain?

The restaurants could simply install a number of secured dome tents for diners to squat down in while enjoying a sumptuous and well-prepared meal served by waiters wearing down vests and/or GoreTex parkas.

It's no different than any well-to-do, pseudo mountaineer/vacationer in the Himalayas being served their dinner and wine by a native Sherpa.

Posted by Angie, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Nov 17, 2021 at 10:12 am

Angie is a registered user.

I think dining outdoor isn't as comfortable in winter months but since we have thousands of unvaccinated kids who are not yet eligible for vaccination, I think you'll still see lots of families remain outside.

Posted by Diane+Reklis, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Nov 17, 2021 at 11:03 am

Diane+Reklis is a registered user.

I think there is a win-win here, but it would take a long-term commitment and real dialog between citizens/shoppers/and business owners. European market ambience is fun but it needs more than flapping plastic sheets to work in the winter. Semi-permanent walls and overhead shelters, music, street entertainment, and a real effort to make the area fun would go a long way. Redesign the parking lots behind stores on both sides of California Avenue to make it pleasant to walk to the back doors of shops. This could revitalize both the stores on Cal Ave and the ones one block away. Add safe, covered bike parking and improve the natural paths to the area to encourage pedestrian and bike traffic as well as encouraging transit riders to stay and dine and shop. People like to stroll, but they need attractive restaurants and shops to entice them. It took years to make both of our downtown areas boring and drab (this started long before Covid), and it will take time and careful effort to make both into happening places again.
Los Altos is doing a lot of things right and we should copy them shamelessly. They have gift shops, art shops, clothing shops, and places to go for a quick bite as well as sit-down restaurants. We all buy a lot of stuff on-line now, but we need places where we can see toys and books and gifts and be enticed to buy things we didn't know we needed. It's time to stop wringing our hands and create places that people want to go.

Posted by Consider Your Options. , a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 17, 2021 at 11:48 am

Consider Your Options. is a registered user.

Well said, Diane Reklis.

Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Nov 17, 2021 at 12:34 pm

Anonymous is a registered user.

I vastly prefer non-blocked central streets. I don't live near California Ave or downtown. I drive and want to turn from El Camino Real onto California Ave, for example. I would like to visit retailers. We're not interested in dining there often at either “downtown," either indoors or outdoors, really, but reluctantly use restaurant delivery apps.
No or limited access becomes “out of sight, out of mind."
Blocked off with sawhorses = avoid.
This greatly diminishes the character of an area. I'd like to see individual retailers and services thrive (though I do shop and use services of reputable national chains like Walgreen's).
I don't have an Amazon account on principle; if I absolutely must get something via that, my spouse who has an Amazon account orders for me.
What a shame this concentration of power, choice, price in a few hands such as Bezos & pals.
I give my shopping (like for holiday gifts I just mailed overseas to friends and family) to places with convenient parking and strolling like downtown Los Altos (open), San Mateo (only a side street is closed off).
I've dined and done easy takeout and discovered new things (to me) in BOTH these locations.
Menlo Park has several things of interest; fighting down the clogged El Camino Real there is tiresome.
Similarly I can't stand how Castro St in MV is blocked off at Central Expressway! How annoying and inconvenient after decades. I haven't been there in a long while. (Yes, I can make a conscientious effort to approach via the side, or other end of Castro, but it's not intuitive. I wonder how downtown Castro is doing!? Months ago I visited Books Inc. there and it looked like it might close. There used to be tons of restaurants on Castro...anyone know how they're doing!?
(Thankfully, Books Inc., here in our city at PA Town & Country IS thriving, which is wonderful).
Why should Stanford Shopping Center get all the local and visitor high quality retailer/shopping revenue?

Posted by Myles Avery, a resident of College Terrace,
on Nov 17, 2021 at 3:40 pm

Myles Avery is a registered user.

Simple...just bring back drive-in diners like they used to have back in the old days.
You can serve just about anything on a door-mounted food tray except for maybe an opened bottle of wine or beer which might constitute having an open container in a motor vehicle. Then again, if no one is driving under the influence or above the .08% legal limit, does it really matter?

Posted by Anthony_Blackwood, a resident of East Palo Alto,
on Nov 18, 2021 at 1:44 am

Anthony_Blackwood is a registered user.

Good article to read

Posted by Lana Berkowitz, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Nov 18, 2021 at 7:56 am

Lana Berkowitz is a registered user.

In colder areas of the world, people still shop for foodstuffs and dine outdoors via street vendors. Palo Altans are getting too soft!

Posted by Alan Devon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Nov 18, 2021 at 11:39 am

Alan Devon is a registered user.

Geez...are that many Palo Altans more concerned with dining-out comforts than dealing with real-life issues that actually matter?

Posted by Mike Dineen, a resident of Mountain View,
on Nov 19, 2021 at 12:19 pm

Mike Dineen is a registered user.

Maybe the PACC can hire a restaurant consultant to investigate this pressing matter OR take a lesson from the Mountain View/Castro Street dining district where this issue is hardly a problem worth considering.

Posted by Lauren Jacobs, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Nov 20, 2021 at 8:37 am

Lauren Jacobs is a registered user.

Fewer downtown and California Avenue restaurants replaced by small specialty merchants would be a step in the right direction.

Take a cue from Stanford Shopping Center where high-end shopping takes precedence over gluttony.

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