Last year, when the City of Vancouver expedited permits for outdoor cafes and patios on sidewalks and – heavens! – where once there was parking, it was clear this was a paradigm change that would continue on – as it has. But I expected that this year, restaurants would up their game and come up with something more than plastic, plywood and picnic benches for their streeteries. Unless I’ve missed some of the better examples, there’s actually not much eye candy on the menu this summer. The second wave has been disappointing.
Cost is a factor, of course, and it’s hard to make a capital commitment if it’s all going to be temporary. But that’s not the case in other cities – particularly New York, where there are some outstanding examples of innovation, and not just in design, as described in this critique:
… Open Restaurants program gave thousands of restaurants quick clearance to set up tables on streets and sidewalks …. New Yorkers were used to seeing a first wave of in-street dining areas made of traffic cones, sawhorses, planter boxes and other hardware-store items. Don Angie’s cabins were different. They were forerunners of the second wave — designed with forethought, built to last beyond the warm weather and, most interesting of all, conscious of their responsibility to give the neighborhood dog-walkers and bike-riders a moment of visual joy in return for the privilege of existing on public land, in the public eye.
Now a third wave of curbside dining architecture is on its way, and it’s time for New Yorkers to think about what we want from restaurants in return for letting them operate open-air dining rooms on our streets. … As the twin crises of Covid and the threat it posed to a pillar of the city’s economy become less urgent, the city has a new rationale for allowing tables and chairs to take over more than 8,000 parking spaces. …
To encourage the kinds of thoughtful designs and collaborations that will make the city a more interesting place to inhabit and visit, three nonprofit groups that advocate better use of streets and other public spaces are holding a new competition, the Alfresco Awards. Entries are still being accepted for the $500 prizes, which will be given out in July.
Don Angie’s checkerboard-fringed cabins, designed by GRT Architects, are in the running. So are other structures that provide both shelter and a jolt of newness to the streetscape: a scale model of an antique passenger train car outside the Hell’s Kitchen bar Dolly Varden;
… the shady Mediterranean pergola interwoven with vines and flowers at the West Village restaurant Casa La Femme; and the transparent box, delineated by a blue stripe of light, that appears to hover over the sidewalk in front of the NoHo Egyptian restaurant Zooba.
Peaches Kitchen & Bar, a Southern-ish place in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, has entered its “Friendship Cabins,” huts whose walls are made of thousands of interlocking clear-plastic bottles. Each bottle is shorter than five inches, but the walls they form are sturdy enough to stand up in winds up to 105 miles an hour. By day they let sunshine filter in, and by night they refract the headlights and taillights of passing cars into kaleidoscopic patterns of red and white. …
The idea of outdoor restaurants as community centers has occurred to others, too. Playground Coffee Shop in Bedford-Stuyvesant used its Open Restaurants parking spaces to build a greenhouse where neighborhood children can dig, plant and harvest vegetables — essentially an off-label use for the Open Restaurants program. …
Before the pandemic, almost all restaurants in New York operated entirely in privately owned indoor space. The great move to public outdoor space demands a paradigm shift in how restaurants see themselves.
They’re already skilled at creating private environments that make paying customers feel lucky to be inside their four walls. Now they need to create environments that make noncustomers feel lucky to be their neighbors.
Post-pandemic it’s time for the restaurants of Vancouver to up their game – and ride the third wave to something not only eye-and-customer catching but community building.