fb-pixel Skip to main content

Sooner or later, North End restaurant owners are going to lose their fight over outdoor dining

North End restaurant owner Carla Gomes spoke to the media during a press conference outside her restaurant, Terramia Ristorante, in the North End neighborhood of Boston on Tuesday.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

So is the great battle for the soul of the North End nearly over?

I refer, slightly in jest, to the pitched battle between Mayor Michelle Wu and some of the neighborhood’s restaurant owners over outdoor dining.

When the al fresco experiment was launched, in the early days of the pandemic, it sounded like such a lovely idea. Nobody was comfortable eating inside, but there was a plan to save restaurants in the most densely populated restaurant cluster in the state: tables for diners on sidewalks and in the streets.

Crowds flocked. Small business owners rejoiced.

But nothing is ever that simple, right? Not in this town. With outdoor dining came congestion — make that more congestion; the North End is always congested in summer — tons of trash, impassable streets.

Advertisement



Which is why the idea of somehow reining in the pilot program that put dining on sidewalks first came into being.

Wu’s idea of assessing restaurants $7,500 for permits to operate outside has become a battle pitting neighborhood businesses against City Hall. Restaurant owners who are unhappy have threatened to sue, and a few joined the dwindling band of annoying antivax protesters outside Wu’s house.

As a peace offering, the mayor announced new conditions Tuesday. Restaurants can pay their fee in monthly installments Those who want to operate outdoors for only part of the five-month season can pay less. There’s going to be a ”hardship waiver” for those who still find the price too steep.

I was surprised, at first, that North End politicians were lining up behind the mayor’s proposal. But for their constituents, outdoor dining has been a major pain.

Lydia Edwards, who represents the neighborhood in both the state Senate and the City Council, says bluntly: “Residents hate it.”

She says it’s been a huge problem right from the start.

Advertisement



“Places that didn’t have indoor dining, suddenly had outdoor dining,” she pointed out. “Having outdoor dining on both sides of Hanover Street, with traffic running in both directions as well, has been a mess. We’re changing traffic patterns to accommodate outdoor dining.”

But what of the frequently heard complaint that the North End is being singled out unfairly? Don’t other neighborhoods have restaurants?

“We do different things in different neighborhoods all the time,” she said. “The impact in the North End is much greater than in other neighborhoods. My constituents actually live in the North End — most of these restaurant owners don’t.”

Some restaurant owners have threatened to sue, claiming they are being picked on. They’re going to have a serious uphill battle.

First of all, outdoor dining is just a pilot program — of course the city can modify it. Besides that, the city’s authority to regulate restaurants is broad — that’s why they can send inspectors into their kitchens or shut them down after a brawl.

Simply put, the right to put tables on city sidewalks and in city streets and serve food simply doesn’t exist. It’s hard to see a lawsuit going anywhere.

It’s interesting though, that a good-faith effort to save an industry that was getting hammered by the pandemic has devolved into such a battle. Lest we forget, these same restaurants were absolutely dying two years ago. Now their owners — some of them, anyway — are spoiling for a fight.

Advertisement



This is a good battle for Wu, in the sense that she really can’t lose. If the residents (and voters) of the neighborhood support the regulations, as I believe they do, the rage of a few restaurant owners isn’t really politically harmful.

In that sense, the restaurant owners share a lot with the antivax protesters who have hounded Wu for months. They, too, have found that their ability to cause political damage is really pretty limited.

There’s an old saying that you can’t fight City Hall. Of course you can, but it helps to have a stronger cause than this one. Ultimately, the restaurants were given the city’s sidewalks and streets on loan.

The city isn’t even taking them back — just demanding rent to pay for trash pickup and such. When the outdoor restaurants are packed two months from now, that will probably seem like the fair deal it is.


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.