Outdoor dining goes from stop-gap to full-time


Around the country, cities are building on the al fresco dining programs they hastily launched last year to keep restaurants afloat during the pandemic.

Outdoor dining in Chicago

Photo: Shutterstock

Last year, in the depths of the pandemic, cities around the country loosened outdoor dining restrictions to provide struggling restaurants a lifeline.

This year, some of those places are opting for Outdoor Dining 2.0, creating permanent al fresco areas in some locales and upgraded spots in others.

Even as dining rooms reopen around the country, many operators say they’re counting on a combination of indoor and outdoor service, as well as off-premise business, to help them make up ground lost during the pandemic.

Here’s a look at what some cities are doing to enhance outdoor dining spaces this summer:

  • Los Angeles is expanding its L.A. Al Fresco program, offering streamlined approval for restaurants to operate on sidewalks, parking lots and streets, the city announced last Wednesday. The program was launched in May 2020, and the city’s 2021-22 budget proposal now includes the creation of permanent outdoor dining areas.
  • Chicago’s tourism bureau is providing $2.3 million in grants to selected applicants to fund projects to create more public space outdoors, the city announced Tuesday. Applications from 15 community organizations have already been approved to participate in the first round of the city’s new Chicago Alfresco program. “Outdoor dining became a lifeline for many of our restaurants last year, which makes today’s announcement all the more exciting,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement. Last year, Chicago introduced special permits that allowed bars and restaurants to operate outside in parking lots, sidewalks and closed streets through its Expanded Outdoor Dining program. That program continues, but the new iteration calls on applicants to “think beyond emergency traffic barricades and construction cones to propose and build design-forward outdoor community spaces through Chicago Alfresco,” the city said.
  • Seattle’s City Council on Tuesday voted to extend its free alley, street and sidewalk permits for restaurants and other vendors through the end of May 2022. The city has so far approved more than 200 sidewalk permits, according to local media reports. The program began last June and was due to expire in October.
  • Salt Lake City trialed its Open Streets program last year, and it was so successful for local restaurants and others, it’s coming back in 2021. Traffic is closed on a four-block stretch downtown every Thursday, Friday and Saturday this summer, allowing restaurants, bars and shops to extend out to the sidewalk. Live performances take place each night. Salt Lake’s Downtown Alliance said it would lobby city leaders to make the area a permanent pedestrian promenade if the Open Streets program is a success this year, according to local reports.


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