Restaurants open for in-person dining, street becomes promenade
The dead calm that has characterized State Street since restaurants and shops closed their doors due to COVID-19 shutdowns was interrupted Friday, as people trafficked the sidewalks in the late morning and early afternoon to make their way to their favorite restaurants.
Only this time, it wasn’t to take food to go.
On Thursday, the Santa Barbara County Public Health Officer came up with criteria for safely reopening restaurant and retail businesses after they go through a self-certification process on the county website.
A couple days earlier on Tuesday, the City Council unanimously voted to “Lift Up Santa Barbara,” which would allow restaurants to create temporary outdoor dining areas by expanding their patios on to public space. This is made possible by sealing off traffic from State Street blocks ranging from Haley Street to Sola Street, effectively turning the street into a promenade.
According to a news release, the City Council’s action was deliberately timed “in tandem” with the Public Health Officer’s criteria.
Though there were noticeably more people walking up and down State Street Friday morning than any day in the past two months, it wasn’t close to the bustling of before the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the soft opening of the makeshift State Street promenade scheduled for 4 p.m., streets hadn’t been blocked and restaurants hadn’t yet extended their dining areas by late morning.
However, some wasted no time in accommodating diners on their patios.
For Chase Restaurant, getting that first customer after a few months of only doing takeout orders was a big deal. The News-Press saw owner Jack Mathis take a cell phone photograph with his first sit-down customers since pandemic restrictions started. Those first customers were a party of four that included regular patron Jaye Taylor. Ms. Taylor told the News-Press that she has been going to Chase Restaurant for three decades and that it was the first place she thought of visiting when she heard restaurants were to start reopening. The fact that she can finally go there, sit down, and have a meal feels “like freedom.”
“Thirty years I’ve been coming here and it’s a fluke that we’re even here being the first to eat here. It’s a pleasure, it feels like freedom,” she said.
Many customers who were out at restaurants expressed a similar sense of relief that they can finally go out and eat.
Santa Barbara resident Danielle Ivie, who was seated on the patio of The Habit Burger Grill waiting for an order, called the return of in-person dining “amazing.”
“It’s been an eternity since we’ve been able to do something like this. Just sitting down while I order my food is pretty epic,” she said.
As Santa Barbara resident Brenna Robinson was enjoying a beer on the patio of Night Lizard Brewing Company, she described the experience of being out at an eatery “surreal.” She added that passersby she had seen looked at her and the other customers on the brewery patio with looks of disbelief.
She said, “You see everyone walking by doing doubletakes when we sit here. You see everyone going, ‘Is this for real?”
While customers appreciate bringing back some version of the in-person dining experience as it reminds them of how life was before the health crisis, it lifts a great burden from the shoulders of restaurant owners who have been fearing for their businesses’ futures. Though under “Lift Up Santa Barbara” most restaurants have to reduce their indoor seating capacity and the extended outside seating must be spaced in a way that allows for social distancing, proprietors expressed great relief that they can now do more business.
Lokum Turkish Delight & Baklava owner Bulent Derdiyok told the News-Press that he received an email informing him of the new development from the City of Santa Barbara on Thursday night. He was expecting the rules on in-person dining to change sometime soon, but he was especially glad when he got the news it was happening for sure.
“It was really a struggling and hard time for us during those two months, so once I saw that email, I was very happy,” he said.
For Chase Restaurant owner Jack Mathis, this change feels like it might mean “coming out of the Twilight Zone.”
Serving only takeout orders for the past two months and having no people coming to the restaurant, save customers walking in briefly to pick up food, has felt “weird” to him. Now that patrons are slowly but surely coming in to sit down and eat, Mr. Mathis hopes this is a sign that for his restaurant, the worst is past.
“Now that actual real people are able to come by it’s like, ‘OK, maybe we’ve survived this,’” he said.email: firstname.lastname@example.org