Parklets and Pandemics: Expect To See a Rise In Outdoor Dining As Restaurants Remake Themselves After COVID-19

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RON BECHTOL
  • Ron Bechtol
Under current pandemic conditions, advantage goes to those restaurants with available outdoor space. Not only does al fresco eating appear to be safer than indoor dining, but the additional seating can compensate for lowered capacity ordered by the state.

In addition to local restaurants with desirable patio options — La Fonda on Main being one example — San Antonio has long set a standard with River Walk dining. Yes, those restaurants all have interiors, but who wouldn’t prefer to sit outside watching the world walk by?



On my second and last pandemic outing, I recently returned to Biga, requesting a seat on its cypress-shaded balcony overlooking the river. Apart from reminders provided by the usual precautions, it was almost as if the virus were a distant memory.

People-watching gives way to a more concentrated focus on an improvised, outdoor screen in the case of some restaurants that have converted adjacent parking lots into impromptu drive-in movie theaters with food service. Nothing like that has yet sprung up in San Antonio. However, it’s easy to see the appeal. With each group confined to its own car, social distancing is an automatic result.



Other eateries have simply strung up some lights and cobbled together shade canopies and perhaps a few planters to separate tables in their parking lots.

A more universal and achievable option, though, is sidewalk dining. With limited exceptions, San Antonio’s street-level dining scene has never rivaled the River Walk — for obvious reasons. Even where there’s shade under hotel and theater canopies on Houston Street, available restaurant seating has never appeared to be wildly popular. Its availability certainly didn’t save Bella, the recently shuttered European dining restaurant on Houston.

Pedestrian Passage

But times are changing, and the City of San Antonio is doing its part to encourage sidewalk usage by temporarily offering free “patio” leases. The program expires at the end of July, and city staffers couldn’t say whether it might be extended in light of the current pandemic surge.

“We will continue to evaluate the program,” said Kelly Kapuan Saunders, spokeswoman for the Center City Development and Operations Department. “Typically, patio permit fees run between $250 and $750 annually depending on the size.”

While applicants aren’t required to seek Historic Design & Review Board approval under the program, insurance is still required, and the sidewalk must be wide enough to leave six feet for pedestrian passage.

So far, six businesses have so far contacted the city about the program. Those interested in getting more information should call Margaret M. Toscano at (210) 207-7426 or email her at Margaret.Toscano@sanantonio.gov.

Here Come the Parklets

Many cities around the country have taken sidewalk dining one step further by commandeering parking places for dining and drinking purposes. These aspirationally named “parklets” have become popular in urban centers from Boston to Seattle. Closer to home, Austin has developed a parklet program and published a booklet of suggestions and criteria.

“We do not currently have an established program for authorizing a new parklet. These require individual review or coordination and, ultimately, city council approval,” Saunders, the San Antonio spokeswoman said.

The one group that’s so far managed to jump through all the hoops and emerge with a handsome result is Area Real Estate. Taking up four parking places on Jefferson Street alongside the firm’s renovated — and historic — Burns Building, the mini urban oasis offers pockets of seating that include tables and rocking chairs, all enhanced by trees and plants in modular, concrete planter blocks that additionally serve as protection from traffic.

Area is paying $800 a year for the spot under a ten-year lease from the city, according to The San Antonio Heron, the. Area's project representative was unavailable for comment.

Yours for the Taking

Area’s parklet was completed roughly a year before the pandemic shutdown, and today you’re likely to find it all but empty — a place in search of people to make it whole. But when pedestrian traffic returns, as it will and must, recently opened Commonwealth Coffee will be perfectly poised to take advantage from its space in the Burns Building.

So, too, can Devils River Whiskey, looking all but ready to commence operations with its copper tanks gleaming seductively through park-side windows. Of course, if you wander by with a to-go lunch from a neighboring restaurant, the outside dining spot is yours for the taking.

In the rethink of cities that will surely be required post-pandemic, a parklet state of mind will come in handy if we’re going to make downtowns desirable again. The carefully designed closing of entire streets, in whole or in part, for dining and pop-up retail may even become popular and politically feasible — once the inevitable chorus of protests abates.

So many restaurants, so little time. Find out the latest San Antonio dining news with our Flavor Friday Newsletter.

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