by Ben Adlin
Columbia City’s vibrant food scene gets a COVID-era update this weekend with the opening of The Patio, a shared outdoor seating area off Rainier Avenue where diners from nearby restaurants can enjoy takeout in the open air.
For South Seattle foodies, the new space is a chance to beat cabin fever and enjoy the last few weeks of summer in an outdoor, socially distanced environment. For neighborhood restaurants, it’s an opportunity to expand limited operations during the pandemic and welcome back regulars who’ve been missed.
“We are craving social connections, and this creates a safe outdoor experience under some beautiful trees to eat from a variety of amazing eateries,” said Gary Snyder, co-owner of Geraldine’s Counter restaurant, which is adjacent to the new space.
Local businesses late Friday converted nearly a half block’s worth of South Ferdinand Street into the new outdoor community dining room, a task that involved closing the road to vehicle traffic with the help of the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and setting up tables, stools, potted plants, and strings of bistro lighting.
Saturday and Sunday will be The Patio’s first full days of operation. After the weekend, the space is set to remain open Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Organizers say the area will also host pop-up retail shops and the occasional food truck or gelato stand.
“The goal of The Patio is to offer a safe and healthy outdoor space for the community,” said Joe Fugere, founder and CEO of nearby Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria, “a space where restaurant patrons can feel comfortable sharing a meal in a place that has been designed for sanitation, social distancing, and fun!”
While restaurants in King County are currently allowed under the state’s phased reopening plan to offer dine-in service, many owners have opted to keep dining rooms closed due to concerns that poorly ventilated areas could increase the risk of coronavirus transmission. Many diners have also been hesitant to venture back into restaurants and bars for fear of contracting the disease.
“Everyone just wants to be outside right now. That’s where people feel safest,” said Emily Eberhart, who manages the nearby Columbia City Alehouse and has plans to take over as owner. “It’s day one for us today,” Eberhart said on Friday, “and I’ve already had two regulars and community members ask, like, ‘How can we make this last all year?’”
For now, the space is only temporary, scheduled to exist for about a month. It’s the initial pilot program for a new Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) initiative called Seattle Together Streets, through which SDOT partners with local business and community groups to convert sections of certain streets into shared outdoor spaces.
“We’ve been working since the beginning of the COVID crisis to identify ways to support Seattle businesses so they can function safely,” said SDOT representative Brian Hardison. While a separate city program allows groups to apply for permits to temporarily close roadways, as Optimism Brewing on Capitol Hill recently did, the Seattle Together Streets involves outreach to community and business groups to plan closures together.
“We’re not asking them to apply for the permit,” Hardison said. “We’re handling that portion of it, and we’re supplying the ‘road closed’ barricades and other things that are necessary.”
The next Seattle Together Streets program is set to launch soon in Othello, he said. The goal is eventually to expand the program across the city, “but because we’re operating on a limited budget right now, we’ve been really focused on areas that would benefit in terms of equity,” he said. “We want to make sure that the local community is aware so they can take advantage of the space.”
He noted that The Patio in Columbia City can be accessed via a Stay Healthy Street on 39th Avenue South, which is closed to most vehicle traffic.
While Hardison and SDOT are hoping The Patio will be a success, they don’t want to see it draw crowds, which would interfere with social distancing efforts.
“It feels like such a fine line to walk,” he said. “The one thing we don’t want … is to have this turn into a destination for people from across the city.”
Visitors to The Patio will be asked to wear masks when not seated at tables, limit groups to no more than five people, maintain distance from other guests, and sanitize their tables before and after use.
“We’ve been careful to follow COVID guidelines,” said Rob Mohn, who sits on the steering committee of the Rainier Ave Business Coalition and helped organize the project along with other businesses and members of the Columbia City Business Association. Signs about the social-distancing guidelines are posted on each table as well as on large posters, Mohn said. As for enforcement, he said, “it’s self-policing, really.”
The space is geared primarily toward restaurant and coffee shop customers, Mohn said, but all sorts of businesses will be able to take part. “We’re going to invite all of our retail shops,” he said. “If they’d like to set up a sidewalk operation for a day, we’re going to offer that also.”
Businesses so far are cautiously optimistic. While some said the area already feels like it needs an expansion, others said they were grateful to have any outdoor seating space at all. Even after restarting limited dine-in service, said Snyder at Geraldine’s, the restaurant is doing only about half the business it was before the pandemic.
By some estimates, restaurants have been hit harder by the pandemic than any other industry. An economic impact report published by Yelp last month found that more than 26,000 restaurants nationwide experienced some sort of closure due to COVID, while more than 15,000 have shuttered permanently.
At Lottie’s Lounge, on the corner of Rainier and Ferdinand, owner Beau Hebert said the coronavirus pandemic nearly brought the establishment to a halt.
“It’s a place that’s very tight,” Hebert said of the cocktail bar and eatery. “We are the antithesis of social distancing, and most efficiency apartments would boast a better kitchen.”
For the past several weeks, Lottie’s has closed its dining room entirely and instead simply sold hot dogs and drinks from its own small patio, which Hebert said made more sense than trying to prepare a whole menu. “Sales were so pitiful, actually, that prepping and buying perishable goods — I’m a freak about freshness — just didn’t seem like the right thing to do,” he said.
Having nearby outdoor seating at The Patio, Hebert added, “emboldens me to put out some of our favorite menu items and have an actual take-out menu scenario.”
While the new pilot program may be gone by the end of summer, Hebert and others are hopeful it will encourage Seattle to rethink its use of public spaces.
“I think maybe a silver lining of this pandemic might be a liberalization of some of the really arcane laws that are holding back what’s pretty logical and normal in European countries,” he said. “We’re seeing that, like, having a sandwich and a beer out on the sidewalk is not tearing apart the fabric of our society.”
The Patio: Rainier Ave S & S Ferdinand St, Columbia City / Open Tuesday–Sunday, 10 a.m.–9 p.m.
Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based journalist.
Featured image by Shelley Morrison