Outdoor Dining & Sidewalk Cafes

Outdoor cafes and dining extends restaurant seating and enlivens the sidewalk environment. Cities enact rules and policies to balance restaurant activity with the public's' interest in public spaces.

Benefits & Problems Addressed

Economic development: Increased sales for restaurants: with a $200,000 investment, the seasonal return could yield $500,000 in sales (Simon Advisory Group). This translates into higher revenue for cities/towns as well.

Activated public spaces: Outdoor dining puts activity and eyes on the street, creating a grater sense of safety and community.

Options for pet owners: Outdoor dining can let dog owners take their pets out with them.

Best practices: By setting clear, simple policy and best practices, cities can encourage dining while minimizing common complaints associated with outdoor dining and red tape complaints from restaurateurs.

Tips & Techniques

Process & permits: Cities typically establish a process and permits allowing outdoor seating. Typical elements include: (1) Purpose & definitions, (2) Application requirements & fees, (3) Indemnification/"hold harmless" clause, (4) allowed activities & hours of operation, (5) alcohol beverage requirements, (5) maintenance & liability, and (6) enforcement procedures.

Alignment: The most simple alignment is dining adjacent to the restaurant, which produces no conflict with waiters and pedestrians. Tables can also be placed next to the street/on-street parking, or a combination of both. Increasingly, cities are experimenting with temporary dining in parking spaces.

Defining borders: Defining borders helps balance activity and avoid conflicts; in general allocation is between 6-8 feet. Some cities have no rules on borders while others require permanent fencing/chains (sometimes required by alcohol rules). In between, movable chains, fencing and planters define dining areas. Some cities use a mix of sidewalk paving materials to show where dining is approved (good for narrow sidewalks).

Hygiene: Cities may want to track problems with pet policies and with any pest problems that can arise with food. Watch for tables under trees (bird waste).

Noise abatement: In urban areas, residents in mixed use buildings face additional stret level noise. Restaurants can abate noise with (1) awnings, (2) umbrellas, (3) landscaping/foliage, (4) noise baffles.

Trends: Cafe policies are increasingly regulated on a district level rather than individual permitting. Simplified, online application and clear, visual process steps help restaurant owners. Designs for enclosures and heat lamps that extend the outdoor dining season into fall and winter. Many cafes offer a special patio menu to simplify logistics, and grow herbs for restaurant use in planters.

Hot Buttons: Noise is the main problem. Allocation of sidewalk space as growing numbers of users compete for space. Panhandlers and vendors disturbing sidewalk diners.


Interactive Sidewalk Cafe location & policy map: New York City, NY US

Downtown Sidewalk Cafe Design Guide - Redwood City, CA US

Image: SF Better Streets