We usually don’t get excited about patios when the calendar bumps into pumpkin season. But after a week of orange, Mordor skies, a forecast of clouds and drizzle sounds like sunny, shorts-and-sandals weather to us. We get to breathe fresh air again.
Fall has arrived, but the plastic chairs and patio furniture that restaurants usually mothball around this time of the year are staying put for a while. Restaurants are doubling down with awnings and heat lamps to weather the wet autumn, and many are expected to keep their outdoor dining areas going through midwinter.
There are streeteries, parklets and dining decks in just about every Seattle neighborhood. Picnic tables have been plopped in alleyways and parking lots. Even secondary streets have closed down and been remade into “plazas” or outdoor dining areas around Ballard and other Seattle neighborhoods; blocks are lined with sidewalk cafes, resembling Paris’s Boulevard Saint-Germain. Of course, the reality is less romantic than that.
In the past 10 weeks, at least 150 Seattle businesses, mostly restaurants, have set up alfresco dining out of necessity due to the pandemic. Restaurateurs
are trying to make up for the lost seating capacity since Washington state has capped indoor dining at 50% capacity in King County, which is currently in Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan. Requests for outdoor dining are up since many customers feel safer dining outdoors, several restaurateurs said.
At University Village shopping center, anchor tenants Din Tai Fung and Ba Bar added outdoor dining areas right out on the closed streets near retail stores.
One of the city’s biggest attractions, Pike Place Market, set up eight patios along its cobblestone streets and alleys to help keep its 30 cafes and bistros afloat. You can find seating in the back of the market along Western Avenue by JarrBar or snatch up one of the picnic tables with sunset views of Elliott Bay by Old Stove Brewing.
Here’s a breakdown of the three kinds of pandemic patio permits the city of Seattle and its Department of Transportation have issued to help the struggling service industry.
Safe Start Program
The permit for curbside and sidewalk cafes remains the most popular in the city — a free, temporary six-month pass for business owners to put out chairs and tables on the sidewalks. Since mid-September, the city has approved 143 permits, with more under review, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation. Most were issued for cafes and bistros, though a few retail shops also use the sidewalk permits to display merchandise. In most cases, the sidewalk cafes (which still need to leave enough room for wheelchairs) are modest, usually six to 10 seats, often with small, round tables for two. Note, many restaurants run a shorter menu outside due to logistics or staff shortage. MEET Korean BBQ on Capitol Hill, for instance, hawks rice bowls, burgers and fried chicken for patio dining, while indoor dining is focused more on wagyu steak and gourmet meats to take advantage of its tableside grills.
Case study: Pike Place Market
The city’s biggest summer tourist attraction has set up eight patios, most notably a 48-seat alfresco dining area by the main entrance on Pike Street, near the iconic, glowing “Public Market Center” sign. That patio is designated for Radiator Whiskey and Matt’s in the Market. There’s sometimes a waiting list on sunny days during dinner. “People love it because it reminds them of those European-style markets with the outdoor seating,” said Dan Bugge, who owns both restaurants. But it’s every server’s worst nightmare. Both restaurants are located in the adjacent building, so waiters climb two flights of stairs each way and hustle outside while dodging foot traffic to deliver burgers and chowders to patio diners. No sane owner would agree to take on this logistical hell, but during a pandemic, you have to make rent, Bugge said. “I’ve lost about 10 pounds this past month. My legs are in the best shape they have ever been.”
Street Closure Permits
In July, the city launched its second pandemic patio program by allowing restaurants to set up picnic tables and patio furniture around some closed secondary streets for up to six months.
Eleven streets have been closed thus far:
- Capitol Hill, Broadway Court (between East Seneca and East Union streets). Street closed Mondays-Thursdays 4-10 p.m., Fridays 3-10 p.m. and weekends noon-10 p.m. Effective through Nov. 13.
- Capitol Hill, Melrose Avenue (between Pike and Pine streets). Street closed weekdays from 4 p.m.-10 p.m. and weekends 10 a.m.-10 p.m. through Jan. 1, 2021.
- Capitol Hill, East Harrison Street (between Malden Avenue East and 15th Avenue East). Closed daily 3-10 p.m. through Feb. 11, 2021.
- Capitol Hill, 11th Avenue (between East Pike and East Union streets). Street closed 9 a.m.-10 p.m. daily through Feb. 28, 2021.
- Chinatown International District, Occidental Avenue South (between South Main and South Jackson streets). Street closed daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m. through Feb. 7, 2021.
- Upper Queen Anne, West Crockett Street (between Queen Anne Avenue North and First Avenue North). Street closed on Thursday for the farmers market, other weekdays 11 a.m.-10 p.m. and weekends 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Street closed through Feb. 15, 2021.
- Pike Place Market, Post Alley (between Pine and Stewart streets). Street closed Wednesdays-Sundays 10 a.m.-9:30 p.m. through Feb. 17, 2021.
- South Lake Union, Ninth Avenue North (between John and Thomas streets). Street closed daily through Nov. 1 but local access allowed.
- West Seattle, California Avenue Southwest (by Southwest Oregon Street). Street closed on Sundays for the farmers market and from 4 p.m.-8 p.m. for patio dining, through Nov. 2.
- Ballard, Ballard Avenue Northwest (between 20th Avenue Northwest and 22nd Avenue Northwest). Considered a “partial closure ” with one-way traffic every day until March 1, 2021.
- Sodo on Occidental Avenue South (near South King Street and Railroad Way South). Closed on game day.
Case study: Ballard
The most vibrant alfresco scene in the city, this barhopping drag on Ballard Avenue Northwest between 20th Avenue Northwest and 22nd Avenue Northwest, gets heavy foot traffic during weekend brunch and happy hour. At least 13 restaurants, from the new bar restaurant The Ballard Cut to standby Gracia, have set up patios or decks along the sidewalks and street, cordoning their sections with plants and picket fences and umbrellas overhead. Much of the décor is well integrated into the urban landscape and storefronts. The Noble Fir, a popular hangout for beer nerds, created a garden oasis complete with a canoe repurposed into a planter box along with rows of dahlias and plants.
Seattle Together Streets
The city partnered with civic leaders, nonprofits and businesses to set up outdoor seating areas in “underserved” communities, providing patio furniture, signage and other logistical support, such as closing down the streets every weekend. Two test pilots: Lake City at 31st Avenue Northeast between Lake City Way and Northeast 123rd Street (next to Jalisco Mexican Restaurant) and the New Holly area by the Othello light rail station at 42nd Avenue South, south of South Myrtle Street (behind Cafe Red). Both patios are set up on Saturdays (11 a.m.-3 p.m.) and may continue through October depending on demand. Columbia City has been the big success story under the “Seattle Together Streets” program.
Case study: Columbia City
At the corner of South Ferdinand Street and Rainier Avenue South, about a dozen tables have been set up, with another five tables in an alley under a string of lights. Unlike many outdoor dining spaces across the city, this alfresco area, called “The Patio,” feels more like a community hub, with realtors talking color schemes with potential clients, dog walkers taking a break and parents hanging out with their kids while they get their brain freezes over slushies. The adjacent corner bar, Lottie’s Lounge, set up a stand hawking hot dogs and beer and even delivers to The Patio. A gelato cart was also stationed by the alley on a recent weekend. There are sanitizer stations and several trash, compost and recycling bins, including one just for pizza boxes for all the takeout orders from nearby Pagliacci and Tutta Bella.