W ith temperatures falling, COVID-19 cases lower than they were a year ago and vaccination levels steadily rising, the appeal of the expanded outdoor dining options that were popular at the height of the pandemic is beginning to ebb. Restaurant owners said they scaling back their outdoor dining plans and municipalities are starting to pack in the tables and tents that have lined main streets since last summer.
Downtowns like Metuchen and Red Bank, for example, opted not to continue outdoor dining for restaurants. In those towns, during the worst of the pandemic entire streets were closed, even during the colder months when “igloos” kept diners warm.
In Metuchen, the borough shut down parts of New Street to allow restaurants to set up outdoor tents and seating. Those had to be taken down so that much-needed gas line work could be completed, and they will not be allowed back because of “the overall local decrease in COVID cases,” Mayor John Busch said in October.
Red Bank officials said that work is required on several of the streets in the downtown that were closed for restaurants so those businesses would have to remove the tables. Many restaurants extended their participation in the borough’s outdoor dining program through October, but “felt that due to the temperatures, they would not want to extend into November regardless of the upcoming construction,” said Kathleen Horgan, a Red Bank councilwoman.
In other communities, like Princeton, local officials felt that outdoor dining “can be practically a year-round offering,” said Councilwoman Michelle Pirone Lambros. Restaurants are given the option to offer outdoor dining, with certain streets turned into one-way thoroughfares so that some stretches could be turned into plazas and seating areas.
Many businesses do not have the staff to maintain their outdoor operations, Lambros said. But most establishments in downtown Princeton “are still offering outdoor seating and will continue to do so until weather and/or construction prohibits this.”
On the other side of the state in Asbury Park, Lola’s Cafe owner Scott Mizrahi said he believes patrons enjoyed outdoor dining at his establishment — which serves coffee, desserts and alcohol — even during the colder months. “It was immense, when it was cold,” he said in an interview. The eatery offered the outdoor bubbles with heaters, and it made for an entire experience “people would turn out for.”
Mizrahi said that he’ll have to take down most of his outdoor operations on Cookman Avenue, which was shut down to vehicular traffic and turned into an outdoor dining and pedestrian plaza. The street is slated to be reopened to cars later in November.
“If I did it again they would come out,” he said. The hope is that he’ll be able to offer some semblance of outdoor dining just on the sidewalk. “We do have 100% inside, so there’s no reason I guess for the town to offer the outdoor dining.”
Paul Vagianos, who owns It’s Greek to Me in Ridgewood, said he has low expectations for outdoor dining this winter, though he does expect to provide the option in warmer months even after the pandemic “because it turned out to be so popular.”
“Not many people want to sit outside,” said Vagianos, a former president of the town’s chamber of commerce. “The vast majority of people are vaccinated, and so many people feel comfortable going indoors to dine.”
From his point of view, restaurants won’t necessarily offer outdoor dining just because they invested significant amounts of money in it. If patrons don’t want to sit outdoors, then the costs aren’t worth it. “Most restaurants are not going to be doing it again this year in the winter,” he lamented. “The heated dining thing is a very difficult thing to achieve, so very few places did it, and fewer did it well.”
Spiro Hadjiyerou though, said he wants to give the outdoor dining another shot. But he said red tape got in the way. He’s the owner of the Colonial Diner on Route 18 in East Brunswick.
While his ambitions for the restaurant were to have outdoor tents, and set up electric heaters, the town regulations were too cumbersome. Tents had to be taken down, heaters had to be spaced at certain distances, specific sides of enclosures had to be open. Hadjiyerou said he hopes to construct a permanent outdoor dining arrangement for his eatery, one that would use fans in the summer and heaters in the winter.
“You go to New Brunswick – not only do they close off streets, but they supply them with big tents. It wasn’t fair,” he said.
1 of 1 article
0 articles remaining
Advance your business edge with news from NJBiz. Register now for more article access.