Taking It to the Streets

Alfresco dining gets a boost in the age of COVID-19
outdoor dining
Sidewalk tables at Mulvaney’s B&L. Photo by Rachel Valley

Outdoor dining has long been a feature of Sacramento’s restaurant scene. We’ve certainly got the weather for it. At least six months a year, we’re virtually guaranteed sunny skies and balmy (or blazing—take your pick) temperatures. Restaurants lucky enough to have a little bit of outdoor real estate—a patio out back, a sliver of sidewalk out front—have always been able to capitalize on our great weather.

But COVID-19 showed that Sacramento could up its outdoor dining game considerably. After a two-and-a-half-month shutdown caused by the pandemic, the governor allowed restaurants to reopen in late May with the caveat that there be at least six feet of space between tables for social distancing. For most restaurants, that meant significantly reducing the number of people they could seat.

outdoor patio
The new deck at Selland’s Market-Cafe on H Street.

To help restaurants get back on their feet financially, the city of Sacramento decided to allow them to expand their dining space onto sidewalks, streets and parking lots under a new program called Farm to Fork Al Fresco—F2FAF for short. A number of restaurants, many of them in midtown, quickly took advantage of the program. At the corner of 18th and Capitol, dozens of tables colonized a vast swath of sidewalk in front of Zocalo, Field House and Sibling by Pushkin’s (the newly renamed Pushkin’s Kitchen). A block away, on L Street, a couple of restaurants pushed their boundaries into the public space, with seating on the sidewalk outside of Aioli Bodega Española and nudging out into thstreet in front of The Rind.

Just around the corner, on 19th Street, tables, chairs and umbrellas spilled onto the pavement in front of Mulvaney’s B&L and its next-door events building, The Pig on the Corner. With 120 linear feet of sidewalk, Mulvaney’s was well-situated when the governor, in response to a spike in infections, slammed the door shut on indoor dining in late June. Looking on the bright side, owner Patrick Mulvaney said his outdoor seating “brings a pop to the corner.”

Parking spots now provide extra seating at Zócalo in midtown. Photo by Gabriel Teague.

F2FAF created expedited permitting for restaurants to spread out onto public rights of way such as streets and sidewalks. In the past, Sacramento restaurateurs have caustically critiqued the city’s permitting process, which could slow down a restaurant opening by weeks or even months. Not now. Tyler Williams, owner of Tank House, a barbecue restaurant and bar in midtown, submitted a permit application to add sidewalk seating on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend and received a call back from the city the very next day“I was floored,” Williams said. “The city does not call you on Memorial Day.” A city staffer came out on Tuesday for a site review, and by Thursday the new patio was open. It cost Williams only $100 for a state ABC permit to serve alcohol outdoors; the city permit was free. “I have to say I’ve never had an easier experience with the city,” said Williams, who also owns The Jungle Bird and Ten Ten Room.  

In East Sacramento, Selland’s Market-Cafe got city permission to turn part of its parking lot into a dining space. Owner Randall Selland built a handsome wood deck, complete with misters and shade sails; the apparatus can be taken down and stored at the end of the summer. But perhaps the most ambitious use of public space can be seen in the complete closure of streets to car traffic. In June, 20th Street between J and K streets was blocked at both ends so that LowBrau Bierhalle could create a sprawling beer garden in the street, with picnic tables, benches and a kiosk for ordering. Other street closures soon followed. For LowBrau owner Michael Hargis, it’s an opportunity to show Sacramento what outdoor dining can look like once the pandemic is over.

outdoor dining LowBrau
Photo by Rachel Valley

For his part, Mulvaney takes a glass-half-full approach to running a restaurant in the COVID-19 era. “If there’s a silver lining, it’s that it shows folks what street activation can look like—it brings a lot of humanity out to the city in a way it wasn’t before,” he said. “I hope we can continue this in some form.”