Dining at a distance

Towns, restaurants mull outdoor dining idea.

Alchemy is one of the many restaurants working with town officials to explore outdoor dining. — Lexi Pline

Doug Smith of Lucky Hank’s was a fan of outdoor dining even before a pandemic made it something the town of Edgartown is looking to encourage. Since opening on Upper Main Street in 2012, Lucky Hank’s has set up tables in its screened porch.

“I love the idea. I don’t think it would benefit, or adversely affect, my restaurant, but I do think it would be amazing for Edgartown,” Doug Smith, owner and chef of Lucky Hank’s, told The Times in an email.

Smith isn’t the only Island restaurateur interested in outdoor dining. Following Edgartown’s decision to explore “European-model” dining, with closed-off streets and parking lots, other towns and restaurants are looking at how that might work.

Edgartown town administrator James Hagerty said plans are still in the works, and town officials will have a better idea of what plans would look like after May 18, when the state is expected to release its four-phase plan for reopening the economy.

Other towns, like Tisbury and Oak Bluffs, have also expressed an interest in outdoor dining and restaurants are now adding the possibility of outdoor dining to their list of preparations for the summer.

Alchemy on Main Street in Edgartown is thrilled about the idea of expanding outdoor dining. Alchemy office manager Kelsie Dahlen told The Times in an email that the Main Street restaurant is eager to be involved in the process moving forward. 

“There certainly remain a lot of unknowns and logistics to work through, but as the situation evolves, we have great confidence that our Edgartown community will rise to the challenge,” Dahlen wrote. Alchemy contacted local attorney Sean Murphy, who is helping to strategize what outdoor dining would look like in downtown Edgartown.

Chef and owner of L’Etoile Michael Brisson said he was enthused to see the acknowledgement of restaurants and how many people they feed. Still in off-season mode, Brisson said he is reading and gathering information on reopening procedures.

“I’m all for it,” Brisson said, “but the bigger question is, Is there going to be a demand for it?”

L’Etoile usually has outdoor seating every summer under a tent, and Brisson said he would entertain the idea of having even more seating outside on the lawn.

He also said he was worried primarily about his staff on the frontlines, and what would be safe for them going forward. “I don’t want to see restaurants change forever and have to go to a to-go model,” he said. “Everyone’s going to get tired of eating out of containers.”

Eli Levy, an operating partner for the Atlantic Fish & Chop House, told The Times his establishment would welcome the idea “for sure.”

J.B. Blau, who operates several restaurants on the Island, including a Sharky’s Cantina in Edgartown, said he loves the concept of outdoor dining, but cautioned that if takeout becomes the new normal, restaurants should be careful which streets or areas get blocked off to cars.

“It’s going to be a thing where you have to weigh the pluses and the minuses of dine-in businesses versus takeout, and try to figure the numbers out to which makes more sense,” Blau said.

Sharky’s in Edgartown has a large parking area that would have space for outdoor dining, but Blau said that can create its own challenges, by eliminating parking for dining and pickup. He added that he’s confident town leaders and restaurant owners will be able to work together to find the best solution.

“I’m supportive of everybody trying anything to make it better, and we’ll just have to see what works,” Blau said. “If takeout becomes a big thing, we have to be wary of that new lifestyle, and if we’re blocking people from getting there to pick it up, that could be a challenge.”

Tisbury is also considering the idea of closing Main Street for a few nights a week to allow restaurants to have open-air dining.

“Yes, we definitely support the idea. We are fortunate to have a small patio for some outdoor seating; however, additional seating that maintains social distancing and keeps employees and customers safe is the way to go,” Stephen Bowen, owner of La Soffitta in Vineyard Haven, said in an email to The Times. “This should also help retail stores by bringing more people into town that dine; many will also shop.”

Oak Bluffs Business Association executive director Christine Todd told The Times there has been discussion about closing off Circuit Avenue to traffic, but not a lot of agreement. 

She said a lot of planning would have to be done, and consideration for restaurants as well as regular foot traffic would have to be taken into consideration.

“It’s complicated,” Todd said. “If everybody is putting tables out in the street I don’t know how you manage the crowds, the people who want to walk up the street and go shopping. I’m concerned about being able to maintain safe social distancing and have the street have all the tables out in it as well. Then there’s the enforceability issue.”

Doug Abdelnour, who co-owns Nancy’s and Nomans, says he supports the idea of outdoor dining and whatever will safely help restaurants and customers. 

“The thought of them opening up Circuit Ave. a little bit is a great idea. To me it would allow the Ritz and Sharky’s and all those guys to get some space to put tables,” Abdelnour said, adding that his restaurants are not on Circuit Avenue. “It would just make Oak Bluffs a little better.