MONTECITO, Calif. — The COVID-19 pandemic created numerous financial and logistical challenges for Santa Barbara-area restaurants. But for many local eateries and customers, a bright spot has been the expansion of outdoor dining into spaces previously taken up by cars.
Now a group of restaurant owners are calling on city leaders to make those changes permanent. They say dining and enjoying live music al fresco provides the opportunity to generate much-needed revenue for the region’s tax base, attract even more tourists and locals to the seaside community and help owners recoup substantial investments many made to weather the pandemic.
Plus, it’s been a popular, vibrant addition, residents and visitors say, that they would like to keep.
Gene Montesano, owner of several Santa Barbara restaurants, including Lucky’s Steakhouse and Tre Lune Ristorante-Bar in Montecito, is one of dozens of area restauranteurs gathering signatures on a petition urging local politicians to retain the regulations that have allowed dining establishments to spread out onto sidewalks, streets, and parking lots in downtown Montecito and Santa Barbara.
“Our customers love it. Everybody who comes to our restaurants asks: Are you guys going to be able to keep this? It’s wonderful, it feels like Europe,” Montesano said. “Outdoor dining creates a happier, more festive feeling, it brings more people out. We created the petition because we’re looking to give the public what the public wants.”
Barry Remis of the Central Coast-based Coalition for Sustainable Transportation (COAST) said opening the streets has helped the community recover.
“We want to acknowledge the benefits that this has provided to our local businesses, restaurant owners, shop owners etc to begin recovery,” he told the Santa Barbara City Council in February during a debate on extending sidewalk and parklet dining. And resident surveys conducted by the city “overwhelmingly indicate that the community, our community, has really embraced… the open space (and) the placemaking that is provided.”
Pedestrians, cyclists, families and tourists have all celebrated the change, Remis said.
It isn’t just Santa Barbara restaurants pushing for the increased outdoors dining options. Groups up and down the state would love for the changes to stay put.
“We had been pushing for more relaxed permitting and creative use of outdoor space pre-Covid, because there’s always been this embarrassing lack of outdoor dining,” Santa Monica Main Street Business Improvement Executive Director Hunter Hall told Metropolis magazine.
The Montecito Magazine’s Mitchell Kriegman has repeatedly argued State Street in Santa Barbara should open itself up to outdoors dining and pedestrian traffic. “If Santa Barbara businesses could integrate the outdoors with architectural integrity and urban planning, it would be a permanent attraction for the city,” he wrote.
The City Council agreed to keep outdoors dining (along with music) to continue until March 2022. But the push to make it permanent continues.
One concern that has surfaced in discussions about the expanded outdoor dining is that it could result in reduced access to parking. But Montesano and his business partner, James Argyropoulos, said parking has not emerged as a problem over the past few months. In fact, many more people are going out to eat than before, and they’re finding places to park, Argyropoulos said.
Since the petition launched just over a week ago, hundreds of people have signed it. Copies are currently available to sign at restaurants in Montecito and Santa Barbara. The group’s goal is to deliver thousands of signatures to city officials.
“We want local leaders to know that if they close outdoor dining, people are not going to be happy about it” Montesano said. “Outdoor dining works. We like it, our customers like it, it’s good for business and it’s good for the city.”