Outdoor dining is a great luxury in some American cities, but it took a pandemic for it to become a potentially permanent feature of the Boston dining scene, and now many restaurant operators clinging to anything they can get to survive, say they would like to see places like Newbury Street become more outdoor oriented for the long-term.
When outdoor dining was approved originally in early June, only a smattering of restaurants on Newbury Street were taking advantage of it. Fresh off a protest-fueled looting spree on the corridor in early June, few of the establishments had recovered enough to put tables outside and serve food. Only a couple, and most of them were doing it symbolically.
Now, on Newbury Street and Boylston Street in the Back Bay, outdoor dining complementing reduced indoor dining has exploded – with warm weather and outdoor spaces providing a “safer” alternative for diners and a newfound vibe to Newbury that some hope will remain.
As of this week, there are 20 establishments on the Newbury and Boylston corridor in the Back Bay that are approved for expanded outdoor dining by the License Board.
Some 13 of them are on Newbury Street, and they’ve staged some elaborate setups to lure diners back.
At Grand Tour on Newbury, Steve Earle said they’ve had umbrellas, flowers and an expanded dining area on the street for about three weeks. The restaurant – part of a group operated by Michael Serpa – had just opened five weeks before COVID closures, and they have only room for three or four tables inside under the regulations now, so they are hanging their hat on the outside.
“Having the outdoor location and sidewalk seating, we get more foot traffic and people really see it,” he said. “It definitely can be a draw for people. Our restaurant is very narrow and small, so we can get only about three or four tables in there. This is our dining room. This is where we are going to welcome people and they can have great food and wine. We hope to be doing this at least through September.”
But he also said he could see it happening long-term – like others.
Veteran restaurateur Kathy Sidell operates The Met, Saltie Girl, and Stephanie’s on Newbury Street, and they have pivoted quickly to offer patio and expanded outdoor dining at their locations to complement reduced indoor dining – which she said is still risky for some diners. She said all restaurants are hurting right now, hanging on for dear life in fact, but that there is an opportunity to make Boston more fun if this could last.
“There’s so much energy on the street,” she said. “It’s been so different. I want to live in a place like Rome where people are outside eating together. We have the potential to do that in Boston…I think the outside dining mostly is really fabulous and makes the city feel more vibrant. Ultimately, when it gets extended, I certainly hope that when COVID-19 goes away, we can still do this a summer or two or maybe permanently.”
Right now, Sidell said, one of the challenges is to convince people to come out to eat, and to give them an exciting experience. As with anything during COVID-19, there is a risk/reward factor in deciding to leave home. Giving a safe experience to diners that is unique is key to a restaurant revival – which is where outdoor dining comes in.
“You need to create an experience,” she said. “It’s risk/reward. People want an experience or they won’t go out. It’s very different decision making than it was a few months ago…Outdoor is breezy and seems safe. People are reluctant to go inside. I think we don’t have all the answers yet regarding aerosols and whether it can be in the HVAC units. Right now we can be outside. I’m hoping when October rolls around and chillier weather comes around we’ll have answers that are positive. We have three months. If we don’t, it will be very tough waters for everyone…There is a deep concern about the winter right now in this industry.”
For now, the idea is to create an experience to dine in a new and different way – on the street surrounded by plants and people walking on the sidewalk in what has become a cozy, very non-Boston, atmosphere.
If they have it their way, it will continue.
“I love it,” Sidell said. “For us, it’s opened up new possibilities for our Saltie Girl location that didn’t previously exist within the framework we have.”