The restaurants took great care to create a sense of ambience, which is a challenge when you’re setting up shop not in your usual space, but on the sidewalk and in parking spaces.
Artificial grass. Open-sided tents with white lights, mounted ever so carefully. Decorative borders, including a white picket fence surrounding one restaurant’s newly created outdoor dining area, and wine barrels surrounding another.
It was all set, an attempt to bring some atmosphere and panache to the new Old Town Newhall outdoor dining experience in the COVID-19 era.
After all, in sit-down dining, presentation is tres important.
And then, days before Main Street was set to close for its first weekend of newly minted al fresco dining, in comes the city Public Works Department.
“Hank, you work the crane. Just drop that K-rail right here, in front of these wine barrels. That’s it. Now another. And another. And another. Make sure you get some in front of that white picket fence, too.”
Boom! There go the improvised patios’ aesthetics. I’ve never been to Paris, but I’m told the French manage to experience sidewalk dining without such eye-wateringly ugly barriers.
At least one restaurateur was not thrilled. It’s kind of like if you went to a lot of trouble to cook a carefully planned gourmet meal for dinner guests, then they show up and dump ketchup on it.
Here’s the thing: I don’t fault the city. Safety first, and white picket fences and wine barrels just don’t provide the same kind of barrier that a hefty segment of K-rail will. And there will be, after all, vehicle traffic on that street during weekdays.
I don’t fault the restaurateurs, either. They, like everyone else, are just trying to make the best of an awful situation, and they’re trying their level best to make it NICE for their guests.
Really, I fault myself.
Because when I saw the pictures of the K-rail blocking the carefully manicured new patio dining areas, I saw ironic humor in it. And I immediately felt like a jerk for the involuntary guffaw that ensued from my gullet.
The K-rail, while arguably necessary, is clearly lacking in aesthetic appeal. The barriers are mostly orange, some white, water-filled plastic K-rail.
In some spots, they alternate orange and white, calling to mind the alternating red and white stripes of the crash walls surrounding some NASCAR tracks.
Darlington Raceway meets Old Town Newhall. All we need now is a guy in a fire suit waving the green flag at Main and Market Street. Git ’er done!
Maybe there’s a public art project to be had here: What if some of our local artists could be brought in to turn those K-rail canvases into masterpieces? Might soften the blow when those things are parked in front of your dining establishment.
The city is earnestly trying to do the right thing, and do it safely. The restaurants are just trying to survive, and the city is trying to help them by closing Main Street to vehicle traffic on weekends. Obviously, safety and liability have to be of paramount concern, along with helping local businesses get through the pandemic with as few permanent marks as possible, both literal and financial.
But that K-rail, man. It’s like a big bottle of Heinz on the restaurants’ artistic expression. I feel guilty for laughing — I really do, and I now feel even more guilty for smirking while I write this.
I’m SO sorry, everyone. Truly. Maybe I’ve been in quarantine too long. I’m starting to get punchy.
But I promise, to make up for it, I’ll be sure to visit the Old Town Newhall dining establishments in the weekends ahead to enjoy the fine creations of some of our town’s best chefs, under the patio lights.
Hold the ketchup.
Tim Whyte is the editor of The Signal.