Ah, August in Washington. It’s our hometown holiday for those not away on vay-kay.
This year a special salute is deserved – it was 50 years ago this month that the city first permitted alcohol to be served outdoors, on the first and at the time only allowed then one-year-old sidewalk café.
Late summer in D.C. offers an enjoyable respite from the usual frenzy. It’s almost a special secret shared by lingering locals, a time when life slows down and everything seems less urgent.
Restaurant tables are suddenly easy to snag. There are open bar stools at many local watering holes. Places are not quite as busy, the pace is less hurried. The city is most maneuverable and more easily enjoyed by residents.
This relaxed attitude provides ample reason to head out to the ever-expanding number of sidewalk cafés, outdoor patios and roof decks at restaurants and bars throughout the city. The multiplying exterior spaces at venues enliven city life, invigorate neighborhood streetscapes, encourage community conviviality, expand revenue opportunities for businesses and generate increased tax revenues. Plus, people love glimpsing others almost as much as being seen.
The District enjoys unusually wide sidewalks suitable for outdoor commercial spaces, unlike many American urban environments. An extended period of temperate weather encourages outdoor congregation and allows for the adoption of European street-side engagement.
Although a more circumspect and urbane attitude has become ascendant in recent years – encouraged by successive city government administrations – many a ferocious battle continues to be fought over outdoor dining and drinking, whether rooftop or street level. Regulatory reform advocates argue that more consistent application of existing city rules governing licensing and hours of operation is needed.
It wasn’t until Aug. 8, 1961, that Washington’s first sidewalk café was allowed to open. Located midblock on E Street, N.W., east of the corner intersecting with 14th Street at Pennsylvania Avenue, the former Bassin’s Restaurant overcame fierce opposition by residents and government officials to become the first hospitality venue with outdoor seating. It was only after a raging two-year controversy during which opponents overstated their case that public opinion shifted.
Citizen fears of food exposed to “windblown foreign matter” causing health hazards, civic disorder resulting from patrons brushing against pedestrians prompting fisticuffs, pickpockets snatching purses or other valuables off tables, death by getting run over in the street due to crowded sidewalks and interference with fire engine water hose operations during a blaze were all eventually discounted. Even the concern of the deputy police chief of the time that “this type of operation would provide a favorable setting for ladies of easy virtue as they ply their trade up and down the street” was overcome.
Those initial 15 tables slowly changed the city’s provincial attitudes. A year later, Bassin’s was granted the first outdoor alcohol service license. That same year a second sidewalk café opened at Chez François on Connecticut Avenue, immediately north of Lafayette Park, the predecessor to culinary icon L’Auberge Chez François in Great Falls, Virginia. By 1963, a total of 20 outdoor dining spaces were in operation and there would be no turning back.
Earlier this month the Downtown DC Business Improvement District (BID) announced that the area bounded by 16th St., Massachusetts Ave., North Capitol St. and Pennsylvania Ave. in Northwest Washington experienced continued strong growth in the opening of sidewalk cafés. The 147 establishments utilizing outdoor space represented an increase of 8 percent over the previous year, providing a 70 percent increase in the number of available seats now totaling nearly 4,400 within this portion of downtown. As in other popular dining and entertainment destinations, smaller cafés of up to only 20 or 40 seats account for the largest growth.
Today there are approximately 500 sidewalk cafés in operation, along with a significant number of rooftop decks. Ongoing streetscape improvement projects in high-density commercial zones provide additionally widened sidewalks ideal for continued expansion of this local amenity.
When next enjoying the outdoors along with a meal or beverage, take a moment to celebrate the entrepreneurs who pioneered this unique local distinction popular with residents and visitors alike.
Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.