Outdoor dining experiment a hit so far in New Haven

Outdoor dining experiment a hit so far in New Haven

Ray Andrewsen felt like he was in Paris. Alana Dina, the Big Apple.

In reality, they were dining on pear and walnut salad and guacamole on College Street in New Haven — not inside eateries, but right out on the sidewalk, part of a Covid 19-sparked experiment that’s breathing new life into downtown’s battered restaurant industry.

With the help of the city, College Street restaurants have moved more tables out on the sidewalk and into the parking lane of the street, while a full lane of traffic has been claimed for pedestrians, as part of the gradual reopening of business during the pandemic.

The experiment is to continue at least through August. Some people want to see if it works as a long-term solution, here, and in other cities across the country.

Tables are open inside restaurants like Elm City Social as well; that option has been legal for Connecticut restaurants since the state’s phase 2 reopening in late June.

But the action is taking place out in the open air. The pandemic has brought about new dining restrictions and led many to avoid eating indoors.

As restaurants across the city wrestle with a resulting decline in sales, a new initiative on College Street between Chapel and Crown has taken shape: part of the road typically reserved for cars is now a pedestrian walkway, allowing for increased outdoor seating space for restaurants trying to stay afloat.

Now, on this single block of College Street, traffic cones direct cars to a solitary lane on the left. Rainbow-colored paint in the street marks where pedestrians can freely walk. Flower bed barriers separate this walkway from the new tables and chairs that some restaurants have set up. The street is a little bit louder, busier, brighter than before.

The new outdoor space isn’t a cure-all for Elm City Social, especially when the weather refuses to cooperate.

“Every time it rains, your heart drops,” said Pat Williams, the bar’s general manager. But the additional seating has helped business gradually climb amid a devastating season for the restaurant industry.

Elm City Social has been able to add about a dozen seats outside due to the street expansion, said Williams. Sales have slowly raised, and are now averaging around 25 percent of their usual levels.

The initiative sprang from a Change.org petition that Elm City Social chef and owner John Brennan created in May, asking for the city to close down parts of College, Temple, High, and State Streets so that local restaurants could expand their outdoor seating.

The petition garnered 1,273 signatures —  and the attention of Eli Sabin, the Downtown/Yale alder whose ward includes Elm City Social.

Both Brennan and Sabin noticed similar street closures in cities and towns across the country, including in New York City and Chicago. Sabin contacted the city’s Economic Development Administration and Department of Traffic, Parking, and Transportation.

They decided on a compromise: to close down part of the College Street block, leaving one lane open for supply trucks, traffic, and emergency vehicles. The street has now been partially closed for two weeks.

“Having the streetside seating allows us to increase our capacity,” Brennan said. He’s been able to keep people hired and moderately increase revenue. “It doesn’t bring us back to where we need to be yet in order to make us whole, but it certainly is a step in the right direction.”

The initiative has impacted the culture at Elm City Social. The outdoor seating is particularly amenable to customers who come in groups. The tables outside give passersby an immediate sense of the restaurant’s environment.

Meanwhile, people coming in to drink solo, perhaps after work, might feel less comfortable at a table outside, said Williams. The restaurant staff works to ensure those customers feel welcome both inside and outside, depending on their preference.

“I’m honestly shocked that the city has never proposed something like this, even not during a pandemic,” Brennan said. “There’s a great, European feel to it on the street.”

Both Brennan and Sabin said they would like to see the initiative continue in future summers.

“I’ve been really excited about the results,” Sabin said. “I definitely am in favor of projects like these that maximize our street space and support local businesses,” he added, noting that community input would be necessary in order to move forward with the partial street closure in future years.

At lunchtime on Wednesday, a handful of groups filled around half of South Bay Mediterranean Kitchen’s outdoor tables. The restaurant was able to add around 20 new seats once College Street partially shut down, increasing their capacity for outdoor diners to 35.

Philip Kent, a local attorney, sat at a table on the road with Ray Andrewsen, the director of membership services at the Great New Haven Chamber of Commerce.

“This is my first time out to lunch,” Kent said. He’s been cautious about social outings, he said, but the meal was going well. “It’s rare to feel a little normal.”

Andrewsen praised the outdoor seating expansion, calling it a “wonderful and necessary” initiative.

“I feel like I’m in Paris,” he said.

The pair ate appetizers —  a pear and walnut salad, a brussel sprout-based dish —  under the shady protection of a large red umbrella.

Later that day, Cesar Poma-Rodriguez, a server at South Bay, made drinks behind the bar. Like Elm City Social, the restaurant was open for indoor dining, but customers had chosen to eat outside.

“It’s created some foot traffic,” Poma-Rodriguez said of the partial closure. The opportunity to dine outside is itself an attraction, he said; “people have been cooped up.”

The recent heat wave hasn’t affected business outdoors, according to Poma-Rodriguez, but the rain is another story. To some extent, relying on outdoor dining for business is dependent on clear skies above.

Next door at Pacifico, Alana Dina, Craig Gomes, and Evongee Smart shared guacamole and drinks, with sunglasses on. Their table was located on the sidewalk, where pedestrians would ordinarily have been walking.

“We’ve been targeting places that offer outdoor seating,” said Dina. College Street feels like New York now, she added.

A few tables down, Janis Spring and Stephen Becker split a shrimp dish. They have a tradition of meeting in New Haven for dinner, halfway between their respective towns.

“We walked around town to find a place we feel comfortable with,” said Spring. They came upon the outdoor plaza and were satisfied with the setup.

“There’s a happy, lively feeling,” Spring said. “We’re both so tired of being indoors.”

Becker expressed gratitude for the servers and chefs working to keep the restaurant open.

Business at the Owl Shop, a cigar cafe open for both indoor and outdoor seating, is doing all right given the 50 percent capacity limit for restaurants.

Justin, a bar manager who declined to be photographed or provide his last name, said he felt “neutral” about the partial street closure.

In the middle of the day on Wednesday, Owl Shop customers mostly remained indoors, where thick smoke filled the room; some outdoor tables gradually filled by evening.

“The extension only helps us so much,” Justin said.

He added that traffic has tightened. When emergency responders are required at one of the establishments along the block — something he said happens multiple times a week — the street is blocked off.

Later that day, at the Anchor Spa bar next door, the partial street closure received more effusive reviews.

Bartender Raasikh Muhammad praised the new outdoor seating. “I love it,” he said. “It creates more of a festival feel.”

Outside, Anchor Spa’s owner, Karl Franz Williams, sat at a table by the door with Valarie Wong and their son, Stone.

The family had just finished “everything on the menu”  —  all of it delicious, Wong said.

“I hope they can keep it,” Wong said of the new outdoor dining space. As a nurse working and living in New York City, she prefers to eat outside, cautious about the pandemic.

Many customers feel the same, Williams noted. He has successfully advocated for expanded outdoor seating for his Harlem restaurant, 67 Orange Street, as well. New York City has not allowed indoor dining yet. The process of getting the new seating approved was easier in New York, he said — but there, the rules keep changing, whereas New Haven regulations have been more stable.

Williams compared the new outdoor seating to a “moving billboard”  —  as opposed to the “static billboard” of a restaurant facade under ordinary circumstances. Pedestrians can witness the workings of the restaurant for themselves as they walk by. They get more of a glimpse than usual of what a meal there might be like.

This “moving billboard” is helpful at a time when “every seat counts,” Williams said.

Other restaurant owners and workers on the block echoed this sentiment.

“We’re in what seems like a losing battle, but we’re doing what we can,” said Brennan.

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