By Caleb Lunetta
Signal Senior Staff Writer
When COVID restrictions forced restaurants to pivot, many made outdoor dining space —whether on a sidewalk or part of a newly partitioned parking lot — part of their new normal.
As the vaccine distribution grows daily and the city of Santa Clarita looks to eventually move things back toward pre-pandemic rules, it’ll be interesting to see how the dining experience adjusts as restaurants return to their regular space.
Local restaurateurs have noted that many have preferred the change in atmosphere, and while some have been able to expand their space as a result of the new regulations, everyone’s no doubt looking forward to a day when such spacing dining choices can be completely optional.
In June, the state of California announced that restaurants would be allowed to return to 100% indoor capacity. And while restaurants were reportedly pleased with the development, after having spent the last year at a fraction of their staff and seating, Jason Crawford, economic development director for the city of Santa Clarita, said the city and the restaurants wanted a period of transition for the restaurants who would need to tear down their temporary outdoor dining experience.
After Aug. 17, about two months out from when the state allowed the new capacity rules, the tables in parking spots, the tents blocking traffic and all other temporary apparatus that were allowed in recent months as a result of COVID and the need for social distancing must be taken down.
“After this expires Aug. 16, you’ll still be able to go sit on the patio at any of the restaurants, on say, Main Street, but you just won’t be able to go out and sit in a parking space,” said Crawford. “During COVID, we allowed restaurants to expand even further into sidewalks and parking spaces. And that was on a temporary basis when they couldn’t be fully occupied indoors.”
“We talked to some of our restaurants and we came up with a two-month transition back rather than just having it end abruptly,” Crawford added, saying that about 100 local restaurants took the free permit to expand their outdoor dining. “The restaurants have had a really hard time over the last year and half, so it was important to us to work with them.”
But just because the expanded outdoor eating will be reigned back in slightly, Crawford said that the city continues to support outdoor dining. From Main Street to the Valencia Town Center, from Stevenson Ranch to Canyon Country, from family-friendly to intimate experiences, Crawford said a number of local establishments have permanent outdoor dining setups that will be available even after the tent setups were brought down this past week.
Why outdoor dine?
Naturally, the weather plays a role, one manager pointed out.
“I think the larger parties are more into it,” said Ryan Wilkonn, the manager at Rattler’s BBQ when discussing why he thinks people enjoy the outdoor dining option so much. “It gives you more space to yourself, and, depending on the weather, people will be enjoying that when it’s 75-80 degrees.”
Rattler’s BBQ had a patio before COVID-19 that could fit roughly 35 people and when COVID struck, they were allowed to expand that outdoor capacity, they doubled that number.
“They’re not really in a rush as much,” said Wilkonn when asked why someone would, when it is an option, choose outdoor over indoor dining. “People that are sitting outside are taking their time to enjoy their meal.”
Caroline Law, co-owner of Draconum brewery, said the outdoor dining experience at Draconum, since its original design, has been set up so that the beer garden makes you feel like you’re in Europe, or somewhere that has a tavern feel.
“Even back to the original design and concept, we wanted picnic tables because that also opens up an extra social experience; it allows for people to have bigger parties that allows for a whole group to come together and hangout or just one family.”
“The people who want to hang, they know that all the games are outside,” Law added.
What is a part of the outdoor dining experience?
“We are finding that guests want to be able to connect for a dining experience in a safe, but comfortable space,” said Jeffrey Compton, general manager at Lazy Dog restaurant in Valencia. “Our customers really appreciate our expansive outdoor patio featuring comfortable table settings that are shaded by umbrellas during the day and made warm with extra heaters at night.
“Our laid-back atmosphere and dog-friendly patios also makes the setting very approachable and keeps our guests wanting to come back,” he added.
Law agreed with Compton that the outdoor dining experience is different than having a meal indoors because the activities that are part of experience differs from place to place.
“It does allow for the bocci ball, it does allow for cornhole, the Giant Jenga,” said Law. “There’s a lot of entertainment value.”
And for those with children, dining outdoors can be fun for people of all ages, and there’s something for everyone available, the experts said.
“They come in and they know it’s the place where they can come and sit and really just enjoy some craft beer and some good elevated, pub-style food,” said Law. “So, I think that’s what (outdoor diners) have come to know and love and expect … it’s that sort of unique “It’s your backyard, but not your backyard” feel.”
Following COVID-19, and the lessons learned plus the positive feedback they received from customers experiencing outdoor dining for the first time, Rattler’s, for instance, is thinking of changing it up from their previous style, despite the changes to the laws.
“We’re thinking of making it a bigger part of it, because a lot of the outside tables that we didn’t have before did really well, people really seemed to like that,” said Wilkonn. “So, we’re keeping five of the tables that we put out there.”