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Raúl Nava, Off the Menu 831: Local restaurants embrace outdoor dining, but brace for winter

Monterey Herald logo Monterey Herald 11/17/2020 Raul Nava
Carmel’s Stationæry now has a prominent presence on the street thanks to its new parklet. (Raúl Nava -- Herald Correspondent) © Provided by Monterey Herald Carmel’s Stationæry now has a prominent presence on the street thanks to its new parklet. (Raúl Nava -- Herald Correspondent)

Outdoor dining has been a lifeline for restaurants during the coronavirus pandemic. With Monterey County languishing in the state’s most restrictive purple tier with widespread risk for virus transmission, indoor dining remains forbidden. Restaurants have made do with outdoor dining, takeout and delivery — and likely will have to continue without an indoor option as coronavirus cases are surging across the state and county.

Local restaurants have invested in parklets, patios and more to stave off closure while offering diners the service and hospitality they’re used to.

Many spots have always had outdoor options — from bustling beer gardens (Alvarado Street Brewery & Grill and The Monarch Pub) and radiant rooftop lounges (Grasing’s and Vesuvio) to cozy courtyards (Anton & Michel and Aubergine) and tables nestled among fragrant flora (Alta Bakery + Cafe and Estéban Restaurant) — and these are as popular as ever.

The vibrant and verdant patio at Moss Landing’s Haute Enchilada Cafe provides a relaxing setting for enjoying an inspired take on Mexican cuisine. “Our secret garden and very private patio offer warmth, ambiance and safety,” says owner Kim Solano.

a sign on the side of a building: Il Tegamino in Carmel originally built a parklet on Monte Verde Street, but then moved to Ocean Avenue. (Raúl Nava — Herald Correspondent) © Provided by Monterey Herald Il Tegamino in Carmel originally built a parklet on Monte Verde Street, but then moved to Ocean Avenue. (Raúl Nava — Herald Correspondent)

Outdoor dining may have been baked into her business already, but she still had to navigate obstacles during the pandemic. She temporarily closed the restaurant in March and only reopened in September when she was confident she had a sustainable solution for health, safety and finances. “No lie, it’s been hard, but we have experienced much gratitude from our customers and our goal is to nurture them and to find a way to make this work.”

Likewise, al fresco service had long been a draw for Montrio Bistro and Tarpy’s Roadhouse — part of the Coastal Roots Hospitality family. “Our experience with outside dining has been extremely positive. We find that the enthusiasm of all guests is high and they appreciate being able to still have a sense of normalcy,” says Coastal Roots Hospitality’s president Ken Donkersloot.

Nevertheless, the team at Montrio and Tarpy’s had to consider careful space planning for in-demand outdoor tables — “It is challenging to find suitable table space in existing patio footprints to ensure our guest safety as the 6-foot distance does limit the number of covers” — and the group’s third property, Rio Grill, had to build an entirely new outdoor patio.

Capacity is critical for restaurants. Running a restaurant is expensive — most operate on razor-thin margins and depend on turning table after table each night to survive. Many eateries have expanded existing outdoor dining options or invested in entirely new outdoor seating to mitigate the loss of indoor tables.

a group of people walking down the street: Thamin Saleh, owner of jeninni kitchen + wine bar in Pacific Grove, built a parklet for his restaurant. “We’ve had to create a completely different style of operation with a totally different set of its own challenges.” (Raúl Nava — Herald Correspondent) © Provided by Monterey Herald Thamin Saleh, owner of jeninni kitchen + wine bar in Pacific Grove, built a parklet for his restaurant. “We’ve had to create a completely different style of operation with a totally different set of its own challenges.” (Raúl Nava — Herald Correspondent)

Downtown Pacific Grove, in particular, has a boom of parklets popping up during the pandemic on Central (il vecchio and Vivolo’s Chowder House) and Lighthouse (jeninni kitchen + wine bar and Red House Cafe), with the latter also home to a pair of pooled parklets — one for Aliotti’s Victorian Corner, Cafe Ariana and Wild Fish and another for Poppy Hall and PG Juice ‘n’ Java.

A number of restaurants have invested in large tents to shelter diners outdoors. The Sardine Factory and Seventh & Dolores Steakhouse have turned their parking lots into dining rooms. Ditto for Seaside’s Gusto, which has sought to recreate the same indoor experience outside.

“When people come into our outdoor dining, they’re extremely surprised by the setup and the look of it,” observes Gusto general manager Tim Muse. “We’re trying to create an inside dining atmosphere outdoors.” Look for amenities like heaters, music and even live TV (during NFL games) under Gusto’s tent.

Restaurants with little street space in front of their property are finding creative solutions.

At Passionfish that means seating diners on a neighboring balcony and at Sushi Fly putting tables beneath the theater marquee.

Max’s Grill in Pacific Grove couldn’t add tables to the sidewalk, so owners Hisayuki and Yuko Muramatsu worked with the city to secure permission to construct a covered patio in the parking lot behind the restaurant. “It wasn’t an easy process to turn the parking lot to a patio. We don’t want to close our doors, so we are trying our best to keep the business going and shifting our model to meet all the guidelines,” explains Yuko Muramatsu. She notes another new addition alongside the outdoor patio — lunch service on the weekends from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Julia’s Vegetarian Restaurant teamed up with Eddison & Melrose to seat diners outside the neighboring tea cottage. “I reached out to [Julia’s owner] Anthony [Gerbino] and said I wasn’t going to be using my outdoor tables,” explains Eddison & Melrose owner Karen Anne Murray. “We got our landlord’s permission and it’s worked quite well.” The outdoor dining space became so popular, Julia’s has expanded service even further to a covered (Astroturf) garden tent around the corner from Eddison & Melrose. The partnership paid off for Murray with increased exposure. “For someone who doesn’t know we’re here, it’s a good little find.”

But the pivot to outdoor dining hasn’t been easy.

Creating new parklets carries a significant cost — on average $20,000 — and business isn’t brisk enough to recoup that expense. Few restaurant owners have broken even on their investment.

Thamin Saleh — owner of jeninni kitchen + wine bar in Pacific Grove — compares the move outdoors to opening an entirely new restaurant. “We’ve had to create a completely different style of operation with a totally different set of its own challenges.”

Seating diners outside has increased transit time from the kitchen. “It’s now double or triple the distance for servers traveling to the table. Everything takes much longer to execute.” Saleh has had to increase staffing to compensate. “Most of the time, servers are outside, not inside. Now we have someone inside expediting too.”

With diners enjoying a meal exposed to the elements, recipes had to be tweaked to withstand the weather. “The Mediterranean cuisine on our menu is very strong on herbs and garnishes, but we started realizing when we take the food out, they’re gone with the wind,” Saleh recalls. “We’ve been modifying presentation so they don’t fly away.”

Keeping dishes the proper temperature has proved problematic. “We’re paying a lot of attention to how much we heat the plates so they stay hot and we’re paying attention to what kind of food we do so it stays hot and doesn’t die out there.”

Despite the extra burdens of outdoor dining, Saleh recognizes it’s critical during these trying times. “Would we survive without it? Nope.”

However, outdoor dining has its share of critics outside the industry.

Tables encroaching onto sidewalks put pedestrians uncomfortably close to unmasked diners. It’s especially challenging for people with disabilities, with many advocacy groups pointing out how difficult it has become navigating sidewalks and dodging diners if you’re in a wheelchair.

Drivers bemoan the lack of parking with so many spaces converted into seating. A drive through Carmel on the weekends shows how parking is more premium than ever. And setting up tables in the street has increased the risk of accidents with diners now in precarious proximity to cars. A tragic accident in San Jose last month saw seven diners injured and one killed when a driver lost control of his vehicle and careened into an outdoor dining area.

Local restaurant owners realize the great outdoors isn’t a perfect solution, but one necessary for the survival of their businesses — and the industry as a whole. And some owners have managed to find some silver lining to outdoor dining.

Carmel’s Stationæry sits off the beaten path, but now has a prominent presence on the street. “It’s definitely given us more visibility. You couldn’t see us from Mission or San Carlos before,” says co-owner Anthony Carnazzo.

It’s a similar story across town at Il Tegamino. Originally, the restaurant built a parklet on Monte Verde Street but then moved to Ocean Avenue. “Moving has made a big difference both logistically and from a visibility standpoint,” explains owner Giuseppe Panzuto. “Logistically, it’s a much easier walk for our servers and bussers than the Monte Verde location and, visibility-wise, it has helped people find us more easily.”

Carnazzo has also observed how dining out in the open has helped patrons forge new connections with each other. “All day long, people in our parklet are engaging in conversation with friends and strangers [walking by] as they’re dining.”

But outdoor dining is by no means a panacea for the pandemic’s sobering impact on business. Two beloved downtown Monterey eateries — Cafe Lumiere and Epsilon — permanently shuttered this month, despite bustling business at both for dining al fresco.

Outdoor dining rarely comes close to compensating for capacity lost indoors. Moving service outside also carries increased costs — infrastructure, maintenance and labor — so any extra profit quickly evaporates.

But the biggest hurdle is weather.

With chilling temperatures, a brisk breeze and scattered showers, these past two weekends have tested local restaurant owners’ strategies for service this winter.

“The weather has been a huge factor in our dining area. When it’s nice out, our patio is usually full and pretty steady, and people enjoy dining out. When it’s rainy or cold, we lose the patio crowds and have more people ordering takeout,” says Muramatsu.

Many restaurants provide blankets to keep warm during dinner, others remind diners to wear extra layers and BYOB — bring your own beanie. Heaters help keep the chill at bay but are only so effective. They’re also expensive to operate, forcing restaurants to pour what little profits they have into propane purchases.

Rain wears heavy on the minds of restaurant owners. Tents, awnings and other makeshift roofs may protect from any downpour overhead, but that’s little consolation when outdoor dining areas must remain open on three sides to allow for circulation. Wet weather also tends to keep diners at home, observes Muse. “Are people going to brave the rain? People tend to stay in.”

Facing a difficult winter, empathy for local hospitality staff is more important than ever.

Continue to champion restaurants however you’re able — order takeout on a rainy night, bundle up for outdoor dining, buy gift cards as holiday presents, reshare social media posts and join lobbying efforts for federal relief.

Raúl Nava is a freelance writer covering dining and restaurants around the Monterey Peninsula. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @offthemenu831.


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