The entire population of D.C. has seemingly taken to the sidewalks. Restaurants are dusting off their umbrellas. People are ordering rosé—lots of rosé.
It’s time. Patio season is here.
The number of outdoor spaces where people can eat and drink—from sidewalk cafes to rooftop bars—has boomed in recent years. Just look at downtown D.C. One-hundred-ninety sidewalk cafes with a total of 5,692 seats occupied a 138-block area as of September 2015, according to the Downtown Business Improvement District. That’s a 6.7-percent increase in the number of cafes and a nearly 10-percent increase in seats from the previous year. The number of downtown sidewalk cafes has doubled since 2009, when the BID conducted its first annual survey. Citywide, the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration had issued 851 summer garden and sidewalk cafe permits as of Dec. 1, 2015. (A “summer garden” is the city’s term for a patio or roof deck on private property, while a “sidewalk cafe” is on public property.)
Part of this bump can be attributed to the increase in the number of bars and restaurants in D.C., but it’s also more than that. Outdoor spaces have become an intrinsic part of the District’s dining culture, and therefore, the business of restaurants and bars. Establishments are investing more in beautifying their al fresco areas and are trying to extend their use into colder months with retractable roofs, fire pits, heaters, and even blankets for guests. Even the names of outdoor patios are now fancified, like the “punch garden” at Columbia Room or the “roof garden” at Rose’s Luxury.
Bar Pilar on 14th Street NW has gone more than a decade with just two tables out front. But last year, the bar owners decided to add a roof deck with a retractable roof. The project is currently undergoing permitting, and co-owner Jonathan Fain can’t say yet when it will open.
“There are so many cool outdoor spaces. Just to keep up with the neighborhood, we needed to add that,” says Fain. “I never would have added one probably if it wasn’t for all the roof decks. But they are awesome. Everybody likes to be on them.”
Fain says Bar Pilar sees a sales drop when patio season hits because everyone wants to be outside. Conversely, its sister restaurant Café Saint-Ex down the block gets a bump because it has more tables outside than in. There are so many extra seats outside, the patio is “like another restaurant almost,” he says.
Even D.C.’s more industrial neighborhoods are now seeing outdoor patios. Early last year, Atlas Brew Works founder Justin Cox lobbied Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie to change the law so that breweries (plus distilleries and wineries) could apply for the same outdoor seating permits that restaurants and bars have. Previously, alcohol manufacturers weren’t allowed to have any fresh-air seating, but Atlas had 35 to 40 feet of sidewalk in front of its Ivy City facility that was prime for a patio. The legislation passed without any fuss, and Atlas opened a sidewalk beer garden overlooking Mount Olivet Cemetery in October.
“The general experience that people have here is a lot better now,” Cox says. “We get a lot more folks that are coming by to sit on the patio in particular. We have people who show up early to make sure they get a seat outside.”
This all would have been unimaginable 50 years ago. As the Washington Post reported, Bassin’s restaurant on 13th and E streets NW opened D.C.’s first sidewalk cafe on Aug. 8, 1961. At the time, the newspaper wrote, people had many concerns about outdoor dining, including “windblown foreign matter,” rodents, pickpockets, pedestrians being forced into the streets, and as a police chief said, “a favorable setting for ladies of easy virtue as they ply their trade up and down the street.”
Those fears, thankfully, have dissipated. However, even 18 years ago, restaurateur Gus DiMillo of Passion Food Hospitality says, outdoor patio seating was around, but “it wasn’t something that you really focused on.” If you had a nice location for some outdoor tables, great, but DiMillo says it wasn’t something he and his team sought out when they were scouting potential restaurant locations. “Now when you look for locations, you have to have a patio,” he says, or at a minimum, lots of windows and doors that open up to the outdoors. “Somehow or another, you have to bring the outside in,” he says.
Perhaps one of the most successful attempts to “bring the outside in” is the garage door–like window at Pearl Dive Oyster Bar that connects the front patio with the inside bar. Despite the fact that the fenced-in space is relatively small and boasts only a few stools, people pack in like sardines for a spot to stand.
And that, says owner Jeff Black, is free advertising.
“Crowds beget crowds… It’s an unintended announcement about the restaurant,” Black says. “It’s great for us. It’s great for sales.”
Pearl Dive was among the first on the corridor to try such an indoor-outdoor setup. Black says officials from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, who normally approve architectural plans from their desks, actually came out to see it “because they just couldn’t wrap their brain around it.”
Similar layouts have since been replicated—or at least envied—by other restaurateurs.
“That was one of the smartest things I’ve seen in many, many years, because that is an eye-catcher… It’s one of the most impactful things on that street,” says Alan Popovsky, who owns Lincoln Restaurant and Teddy & The Bully Bar. When he opened his latest restaurant, Declaration, Popovsky asked his landlord if he could do the same kind of thing, but it ultimately didn’t come to fruition.
Instead, Popovsky has tried to make his sidewalk cafes stand out in other ways. Every year, he invests between $2,500 and $5,000 at both Lincoln and Teddy & The Bully Bar to refresh the patio decor—from chairs to candle-holders to umbrellas branded with the restaurants’ names. “It’s almost like signage. That’s the way I look at it,” he says. “Patios really make a statement for the restaurant if you want them to.”
Lincoln used to have lounge furniture outdoors. No more. Now, the restaurant sticks to tables only. “For the restaurant, it’s better because you generate more revenue. You don’t generate as much revenue off of a couch,” Popovsky says. Plus, the couches can be awkward to eat at.
Popovsky estimates his restaurants get a 10-percent bump in sales on a nice day when their patios are open.
Black likewise says his restaurants’ patios are good for spring sales, but they aren’t exactly the “panacea that a lot of people think.” They require extra staff and equipment, and the fickleness of the weather means sales are volatile.
“You can buy all this food and you can get all prepped for X number of customers. And then the rain cloud rolls in, and next thing you know, you’re doing a fraction of that business. And it’s hard to manage a restaurant that way, because you want your ordering to be exact, you don’t want to be throwing food in the trash, you don’t want staff hanging around. ”
Although D.C. has a number of beer gardens and other waterfront businesses that rely primarily on outdoor seating, Black says he wouldn’t want to run one of them.
Still, he’ll take all the sunny days he can get.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery