It's cropping up everywhere around town, in neighborhoods that are chic and some that are slightly shopworn: outdoor dining. Or as the Italian-rooted word has it - alfresco, "in the fresh air."
The world's most glamorous cities abroad have long been filled with sidewalk cafes and other outdoor eateries. But until recently, there weren't many in this country.
When Rob Bouvier was a councilman and mayor of West Hartford, he was surprised to learn that local zoning regulations actually banned the practice. The town passed an ordinance in 1995 that gave only provisional approval for outdoor dining - a compromise with opponents who feared noise, litter and underage drinking. When the problems failed to materialize, the ordinance was amended and made permanent.
Now, alfresco dining is a key element in the rejuvenated West Hartford Center. On most temperate evenings, sidewalk tables are packed with diners enjoying everything from homemade ice cream to oysters Rockefeller. They are part of the streetscape. It's such a popular pastime that even in November, stalwarts still take advantage of the open air. Special gas space heaters extend the season.
"We pioneered it," says Bouvier. "Now a lot of other towns are following us. There's no question it adds to ambiance. It brings people out. It draws them together."
There's a money angle to this too. By tapping the sidewalk, a restaurateur is able to add more square feet of serving area without paying extra rent.
Simon A. Flynn, president and CEO of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, agrees: The number of seats can make the difference between whether a restaurant succeeds or fails. "Let's face it, it's a challenging business."
Flynn believes zoning boards have become more open to the idea of outside dining. "They are beginning to see how it works."
The people who run restaurants travel, he says. They see how alfresco is used in great cities. They come back and set up similar nooks. Similarly, when tourists come to this area, they expect to find such features, he says.
Alfresco can become a vivid ad. When somebody passes by an establishment and sees people enjoying themselves under umbrellas, it sends out a positive message. "It's a good thing. It's a sign of vibrancy, a sign that something is happening," Flynn says.
It's not only upscale establishments, however, that provide curbside cuisine. Dozens of other restaurants in every price range now offer an outside option.
Franklin Avenue in Hartford's South End has newly sprouted half a dozen such setups. Even the workman's pub Kenney's on Capitol Avenue has gotten in on the act after a major renovation. It's an accepted notion that any food or drink - no matter how humble or fancy - tastes better under the open sky.
So, out is in. Marketers for cities throughout the United States are now touting alfresco as a tourist attraction. "Your Guide to Greater Philadelphia" by John Fischer, for instance, reports:
"In 1998 Rouge opened the first sidewalk cafe in Philadelphia's posh Rittenhouse Square neighborhood. Since then, the number of restaurants offering alfresco has increased at a rapid pace. Diners hit these spots each year at the first sign of spring ... The number continues to grow."
The blog "Urban Strata: Life in New York City" describes changes the author has noticed in the city's East Village:
"Gone are the austere bodegas, creepy fortune tellers and squalid dive bars that used to line these blocks ... [Now] it's lined with leafy trees and alfresco dining. It almost doesn't feel like 14th Street anymore. It's amazing what can happen in a year in New York."
Almost by definition, sidewalk dining adds vitality to the cityscape. Prospect Cafe, First & Last, Max Oyster Bar and compatriots are on a roll. It's a trend that bodes well for Hartford and burbs.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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