Since the outdoors remain the safest place for people to gather during COVID-19, Evanston restaurants are moving to the sidewalks this summer to provide additional open-air dining.
Evanston Building & Inspection Services division manager Gary Gerdes said a sidewalk cafe is an outdoor dining space, typically on a public sidewalk. The city waived sidewalk cafe permit fees for the season — which will run from April 1 to Nov. 1 — in an effort to help small businesses during the pandemic. These sidewalk cafes can include parkways, parking lanes and Custer Ave.
“Sidewalk cafes are not new — the shift to use other space is relatively new due to COVID-19. There was less indoor dining space,” Gerdes said. “The city was looking for ways to assist the businesses expand their dining spaces.”
Eric Young, owner of the Mexican restaurant La Principal, proposed the idea of shutting down Custer Avenue to the city — a suggestion the city eventually decided to implement.
Young said to his knowledge, this is the first time Evanston has closed down a street for a sidewalk cafe, and added that the city was eager to help him out.
This initiative, Young said, has helped the two other businesses in the “Custer Oasis”: Wine Goddess and Trattoria D.O.C.
“This one small act of closing the street every night is really helping a lot of people,” he said. “It is like a little oasis in the middle of the city where we take over a street every night, we stop traffic and we say, ‘Hey, this section of the street is for the pedestrians, for the neighbors, for the residents.’”
Because moving tables into and off the street is labor-intensive, Young said La Principal has increased its staff. On the first day the sidewalk cafe opened, he said the staff was caught off guard by how busy they were.
At La Principal, indoor and outdoor seating have similar capacities. Young said the restaurant closes indoor dining when it is open outside because the kitchen would not be able to handle both seating areas at full capacity. This change has the added benefit of adhering to public health guidelines during the pandemic, he said.
“I’m able to stay out of the restaurant, which we all think is beneficial for fighting the virus,” Young said. “The longer we can avoid indoor dining, the better.”
Bat 17, an Evanston sports bar and sandwich shop, reapplied for the sidewalk seating permit this year. General manager Hannah Lindsey said this time, the process was smoother.
According to the city’s website, sidewalk cafe areas must leave six feet of unobstructed space for pedestrians to walk between the cafe and sidewalk installments.
Bat 17’s sidewalk seating extends into parking spaces, meaning the restaurants can’t use those spots, which provide the city revenue, during the outdoor dining season. Lindsey said she is happy with the city’s cooperation. Last year, Bat 17 had to lay off 75 percent of its staff due to the pandemic, but she feels the city has been supportive.
“(It) seems like they’re really trying to help the businesses out and keep everything up,” she said.
Young credits the Evanston community for supporting small businesses and keeping them open during the pandemic.
He said the community loves shutting down Custer Avenue, and people have volunteered to write letters to elected officials to make the “Custer Oasis” permanent year-round.
“(The city) has small businesses in mind, that they want to keep the small business community strong, and they want to keep the small business community vibrant,” Young said. “Everybody really rallied around restaurants and small businesses to keep them afloat.”
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