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Al fresco dining options bloom with spring

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Spring popped up on the calendar more than a month ago, but it’s taken longer for the weather to get with the program. Now, though, it seems like things are warming up, and with the warmer weather comes the annual return to the patio. Restaurants in Boston and markets around the country are ready to cater to winter-weary patrons eager to enjoy the outdoors as they dine or sip after-dinner cocktails.

Many towns have caught on to the potential for restaurant patios and sidewalk cafes to add energy and life to downtown business districts, but many also walk a fine line between the needs of businesses and residents when it comes to permits, curfews and other restrictions.

Half an hour from Boston, outdoor cafes in Salem, Mass., are seen as an integral part of the city’s downtown revival project, and the necessary permits have become a topic of debate this month as city council members and redevelopment officials spar over which group should have the final authority to grant permits.  Developers say that when council members had the power, they never issued any permits; the council, meanwhile, doesn’t argue that sidewalk cafes aren’t necessary, but they’re worried about facing angry constituents when restaurants appear to overstep. This week’s debate was sparked after residents became upset that Tavern on the Square was allowed to close off a section of sidewalk to pedestrians during the height of the busy season so that servers could move easily between the restaurant and outdoor patio on the corner.

Salem isn’t the only city that looks at a surge in outdoor dining as a sign of redevelopment. In the Detroit area, guests would have been hard-pressed to find one sidewalk café. Today, thanks in part to encouragement from city officials who see the outdoor cafes as marketing tools, many of the cities around Detroit boast multiple choices for visitors and residents looking to dine al fresco. In Birmingham, Mich., restaurateurs are required to add outdoor dining space in order to obtain a bistro liquor license.

“We all know the depressing stuff about metro Detroit–the plummeting property values, a stagnant job market, crumbling bridges, even the threat of Asian carp. But at least we can request a table outside these days and stand half a chance of getting one,” writes Detroit Free Press food critic Sylvia Rector.

West Hartford, Conn., city council members listened to restaurateurs who sold them on the benefits to local business of being able to keep their outdoor dining areas open later. This year, the council stretched the sidewalk café closing time from 10 p.m. to midnight, which pleased restaurant owners for the most part – some still say the city shouldn’t impose a curfew at all. The cut-off time is aimed at keeping the peace for neighbors near establishments that sell liquor, but forcing imbibing guests to leave the patio doesn’t solve the problem, Barcelona executive chef Adam Greenberg told the Hartford Courant. “What about the people inside?” he said. “They are getting hammered, too.”

New York has no shortage of outdoor dining options, and now Times Square itself is poised to become an outdoor dining area – economic development officials put out calls last month for restaurants to feed tourists at 100 outdoor tables set up in the tourist mecca’s pedestrian area.

Has outdoor dining space become a hot topic in your market? Tell us how it has worked out for you.

Image: obscura99 via iStock.