Erin Murphy and Nick Crosby had been operating Su Casa for just over a year in March 2020 when their downtown Plymouth restaurant was hit with a sudden and daunting challenge: How to survive a pandemic.
But thanks in large part to their ability to introduce al fresco dining that spring, what seemed an insurmountable task — keeping a fledgling business afloat amid COVID restrictions — became a manageable one.
“Without the outdoor dining, we probably wouldn’t have been able to continue,” Murphy said of the Baja-style Southern California Mexican restaurant.
Cheered by the success of what started as a creative workaround, Su Casa’s owners are again offering patio dining this year, convinced that even without limits on indoor seating, it’s something customers want.
“People like to be out when the weather’s nice. Patrons love it,” said Murphy. “We have an adorable downtown so it’s just nice to be outside.”
The health crisis that spawned it may have eased, but outdoor dining is returning for another season in many Greater Boston communities as restaurants look to continue — and possibly make permanent — an amenity they say is relished by customers and invaluable to their businesses.
“I think it’s going to be busy this year because it’s been extremely popular,” Tom Galligani, Somerville’s director of economic development, said of dining service on sidewalks, parklets (converted parking spaces), parking lots, and other areas.
“Restaurant patrons were really excited about just the vitality that outdoor dining brings to the business districts and the streets,” Galligani said, adding that new and expanded al fresco service “has also been a lifeline to many of our restaurants.” About 130 offered outdoor dining in Somerville the last two years, up from about 40 before the pandemic.
“In the same way we welcome back the Red Sox, we will be welcoming restaurants with outdoor dining all across Massachusetts this spring,” said Greg Reibman, president of the Charles River Regional Chamber. “It’s something the public told us they want and that our restaurants really need to survive.”
“The guests love it,” said Bob Luz, president and chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. “Pandemic or no pandemic, they really enjoy having a nice meal on an 80-degree sunny afternoon, and having adult beverages with it.”
While it poses challenges — including increased costs and quick-changing weather — “It’s been the lone bright spot for restaurants during the pandemic,” Luz said, adding that outdoor dining is also “revitalizing downtowns and bringing the community out.”
The arrival of this year’s patio season followed months of uncertainty over whether and when state lawmakers would adopt legislation extending emergency rules — which were set to expire April 1 — allowing municipalities to offer streamlined permitting for outdoor dining.
The bill, ultimately signed by Governor Charlie Baker April 1, extends those rules another year. Without it, Luz said far fewer restaurants would have offered outdoor dining this season since the approval process — notably to serve alcohol outdoors — would have reverted to the much lengthier pre-pandemic procedures.
“The old way was cumbersome — it could take about 12 weeks,” Luz said of the alcohol permitting, which required approval by the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission. “This allows the town to regulate it on its own and coordinate the approval process with the ABCC.”
Luz said his association hopes to work with state lawmakers and the ABCC this coming year to allow for permanent simplified permitting rules for outdoor dining.
Even amid the uncertainty, many local communities geared up early for this year’s outdoor dining, including adopting new regulations and strategies to enhance the safety and visual appearance of the streets hosting it.
Plymouth modified its outdoor dining after concluding it was a boon to the downtown in particular, but “had some flaws because of the look and feel to it,” said Rick Vayo, chair of a working group that developed the revisions.
To beautify patio areas, old-fashioned-style wooden facades have been placed over the jersey barriers used for parklets, and planters installed atop all the barriers. The town also is installing platforms to make parklets level with sidewalks — improving access for diners. It is also requiring that restaurants not prepare food, store equipment, place trash, or add signs to their patios.
The town also streamlined permitting rules for restaurants offering outdoor dining, which pay a $1,000 annual fee to help fund some of the town’s costs.
“We are trying to create something unique, special, and fitting for America’s hometown,” Vayo said, adding that this year’s rules could form the basis of future regulations that would make outdoor dining permanent in Plymouth.
Bob Nolet, director of operations for the Plymouth Area Chamber of Commerce, said a permanent program in Plymouth would particularly benefit downtown restaurants, which unlike those on the waterfront, typically lack easily accessible patio space.
“It adds a whole different vibe to the downtown,” he said. “You see people dining al fresco with outdoor heaters, string lights. It’s really added a vibrancy the area needed.”
Newton this year scrapped a rule limiting sidewalk dining to eight seats, according to Devra Bailin, who in April retired as the city’s economic development director. She said the change is timely because the city recently widened sidewalks in Newtonville and West Newton.
“One of the positive lessons of the pandemic is that there’s a huge demand for outdoor dining,” Bailin said. “It’s added real vibrancy to our village centers. I would hope it becomes permanent.”
Somerville also has taken steps to support and improve outdoor dining, including offering restaurants grants of up to $10,000 to install platforms or cover other costs associated with creating or improving their patios.
The city, which does not charge a fee for outdoor dining, also has simplified permitting and worked with restaurants to help them coordinate their approach, according to Galligani, who sees al fresco service as here to stay.
“Somerville has had such success with outdoor dining, we’d love to see it become a permanent part of our dining scene,” he said.
Jess Willis said she is happy to again put tables outdoors this season at her three Somerville restaurants — Foundry on Elm, in Davis Square, which added it during the pandemic, and The Independent and Vera’s in Union Square, which had patios even before COVID-19.
Willis said outdoor dining helped all three establishments survive the pandemic, expressing particular gratitude for the city’s efforts to facilitate it for Foundry on Elm and in Davis Square overall, which had not had much of it previously.
“Foundry on Elm would not be here today if it wasn’t for that outdoor seating,” she said, adding that al fresco dining “created this really great sense of place in Davis Square. People in the neighborhood loved it.”
Willis said even cold weather does not seem to deter patrons from wanting to sit outside, observing that at the Independent, “some of our loyal regulars would show up even in February to sit out on the patio and support our business.”
Jay Spencer, who has outdoor seating at his French Press Bakery & Cafe in Needham, said expanded outdoor dining “makes us a more vibrant town. Everyone now has started to walk more and because of that, Needham is little more of a closer community.” Spencer said he hopes the state and municipalities work closely with restaurants to establish rules allowing outdoor dining to become permanent after this year.
Thistle & Leek, a gastropub in Newton Center, had an existing patio area when the restaurant opened in September 2020, but owners Kate and Trevor Smith worked with the couple’s landlord and the city to expand it to the sidewalk and a parklet.
“It was a lifesaver. We had people dining outside when it was 20 degrees, with gloves and jackets on,” Kate Smith said, noting that the outdoor seating enabled the restaurant to approximate its normal capacity even with indoor seats lost due to pandemic rules.
Smith said her restaurant is again offering it this year, and hopes al fresco dining will become a permanent part of the city’s dining scene.
“Patrons want to be outside whether it’s a pandemic or not,” she said, “especially in New England where people really enjoy good weather when it’s there.”
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.