Dining al fresco

Boulder restaurants prepare for outdoor seating as in-person dining restrictions lift


Well, this could be fun.

On May 25, Gov. Jared Polis outlined the state’s rules for reopening restaurants; a day later, the Boulder Chamber of Commerce hosted an information session with city and state health officials that covered just how restaurants in Boulder will be able to amend their services this summer to accommodate health guidelines.

To reiterate, this really could be fun.

Starting May 27, restaurants will be able to use outdoor space in front of, next to and behind their buildings to seat diners outdoors. They’ll be able to provide live music and feature local art. You might find yourself under a cozy canopy or at a patio table in a secluded alley or dining under the stars on the Pearl Street bricks.

In order to accommodate the changes, the City has expedited its review process — restaurants submit their plans online, start making changes, an inspector comes out within a day or two, and within three days, open-air dining can commence. Local fees for these new permits have been waived. The implementation of this quick timeline comes immediately after the state’s reopening plans were wafted to restaurants late last week, and formally introduced on Monday.

“Restaurants in Boulder are really important to the city economy so we knew we had to act quickly,” said Charles Ferro, coordinator of Boulder’s Economic Recovery Task Force, in the info session.

Some brass tacks: Restaurants and retail spaces will be allowed to use sidewalks, parking lots, alleyways and certain roadways to extend their boundaries. They can use up to 50% capacity of their space to seat diners. Tables will be sited six feet apart both indoors and outdoors, and state guidance says restaurant staff will require guests to wear masks in both spaces when they’re not eating (and restaurant staff will get temperature checks, wear masks and either wash hands regularly or wear gloves).

Outdoor spaces that abut closed roads will have access to some of the roadways, as long as enough space is left for emergency vehicles to pass through. So far, the City has determined Pearl Street between 9th and 11th (and alleys) will be closed, as well University Hill between Pennsylvania and 13th Street.

Outdoor spaces will need to be clearly defined from one another through some sort of fencing — it could be potted plants or a mural or a real-life fence. The City is coordinating an effort to connect local artists to restaurants to fill out their outdoor dining spaces.

If they or the City don’t own the parking spaces adjacent to their buildings, restaurants and retail spaces will have to work with their landlords to determine how much space they can use and if there is a fee. Too, City Council has discussed offering a leasing or payment assistance program for additional tables, chairs, umbrellas, etc.

Live music and ornamental lighting will be allowed until 9 p.m. Though Lane Drager, with Boulder County health, said in the session it will be imperative for businesses to ensure there isn’t a globbing together of people to enjoy that music.

This expanded outdoor dining program will run through the summer, concluding on Sept. 30.

Pickup and delivery service will likely continue at many of these restaurants, but the big thing for these in-person dining changes, is that they’re likely to be a huge boost for restaurant revenues. Even if folks are hesitant to come back, the hope is that every week will bring more and more diners and we’ll soon have places where you can’t place a reservation even if you wanted one.

Some restaurants have been anticipating the changes. The Walnut Café, for instance, which will open on May 29, has put up plastic partitions between booths with staff members planning to be fully decked in protective equipment. The restaurant group wrote a hopeful message to the community announcing their changes, while also asking for grace from diners during this time: “Please don’t go to these businesses and complain about changes that were forced upon them due to lost revenue, lost employees, new policies and protocols. They don’t have the same business they had two months ago.” 

Flagstaff House is reopening for dinner service on May 28. Its spacious indoor dining room allows for social distancing, but so does its outdoor covered terrace. Reservations for the patio and window seats (as always) are recommended. It’ll also be instituting further safety guidelines.

Some restaurants, of course, will need time to get their outdoor dining spaces ready and safe for diners. Blackbelly wrote on Facebook that outdoor dining is coming, but it may take a few weeks.

“The sudden announcement by our governor, while appreciated, was done without enough notice for us to adequately prepare our spaces. We are working quickly to accommodate all of our guests’ needs, while maintaining the highest standards of safety and health for everyone, including our own employees. … We hope to get this ready as soon as possible, but this will not be rushed.”

And other restaurants have used this as a time to change their models. Arcana, which switched to a takeout/delivery model during the pandemic, is taking its time to reorganize: “We’ve been dreaming about a big evolution at Arcana for a while, we’re going for it. When we reopen our doors later in the summer, there will be something new, different and exciting at Arcana,” the company wrote in a social media post. 

Further details will follow on what other roads will be closed, and certainly we’ll see just how fruitful this new era of summer dining will for restaurants, but one thing is clear: If we’re safe and kind and mindful of others, this could be a lot of fun.