As San Diego County restaurants explore every option to get back in business, a new take on an old idea offers an intriguing way forward. While take-out and online sales have helped restaurants adapt to quarantine and now reopening, they need to increase their volume while still following public health guidelines.  “A trend sweeping the nation” is how Betsy Brennan, CEO of the Downtown San Diego Partnership describes al fresco dining, the idea behind their Curbside Dining initiative. This idea borrowed from Europe, San Francisco, and other communities around the country is allowing downtown restaurants to expand operations outside their walls in order to attract customers and serve them safely.

The Downtown San Diego Partnership’s mission of advancing the economic prosperity and cultural vitality of downtown has long sought ways to maximize the quality of life downtown including creating spaces where people can stroll and linger, notes Sean Warner, director of community enhancement.

Warner described how this spring’s stay-at-home order and the shutdown of restaurants and retail stores motivated the Partnership to explore options for eventual reopening. They collected ideas from other countries that were a little farther along in the reopening process and were implementing creative uses for public spaces such as streets, sidewalks, and alleys. The Partnership gathered with thirteen partner organizations interested in developing a special program to help downtown restaurants utilize adjacent outdoor areas to serve more customers given new safety guidelines.

The idea of using public right of ways isn’t new. Called “slow streets” in some cases and often organized for short-term events, the practice creates pedestrian-friendly zones where people feel encouraged to linger. The Partnership’s Curbside Dining project creatively conforms with San Diego County health guidelines by enabling eateries to use exterior space to reach their maximum occupancy and takes care of details like temporarily waiving parking space requirements that businesses usually have to comply with.

Warner observes that since it’s not feasible to close off streets in very many instances, they considered multiple ways to help restaurants. If they have space in front of them, they can use five out of ten feet of the sidewalk, and they can use parking spaces for pickup and delivery or temporary dining.

The Partnership and partners identified six areas downtown, each with their own unique needs—Gaslamp, East Village, the Columbia District, Little Italy, City Center, and Cortez Hill. Their rough estimate is there are about 40–50 restaurants within the pilot locations. The Partnership anticipates that number may expand with the different versions the Curbside program could take in the future as other locations and independent businesses could apply.

They developed three scenarios for participating restaurants using sidewalk tables and chairs, parking spaces, or full street closure. In Cortez Hill, Achilles Coffee converted a parking space into an area for placing and picking up orders. Colorful sidewalk decals and signs for social distancing lend a festive feel. Full street closures debuted with Little Italy on June 13 to a very strong response, has been approved for the Gaslamp Quarter and is in the permitting process for the Columbia District and East Village.

Photo Credit: Studio Serra Photography

Creating safe spaces for the community and restaurant staff alike is one of the primary goals of the Curbside San Diego program. In light of the enthusiastic response to the Little Italy pilot, the Downtown San Diego Partnership encourages all restaurant customers to remember everyone’s responsibility to keep each other safe and healthy as our economy gradually reopens. California Governor Newsom has declared that the wearing of masks is required in most public spaces. Some of the Curbside location-managing organizations may also have staff at the Curbside Dining locations to remind individuals about mask-wearing and offer masks should they be forgotten at home.

More than almost any urban area in the country, San Diego is gifted with a climate that makes al fresco dining a feasible and attractive option for restaurants and diners on just about every day of the year. With tools to help them navigate zoning laws and other requirements, restaurants can rebuild volume by tapping the appeal of San Diego’s enviable climate and urban streetscapes that offer enjoyable settings to break bread in the community again. Challenges remain with how to increase service while also conforming to public health guidelines, but the San Diego Downtown Partnership and its partners’ Curbside Dining program might be just what many eateries and diners need to weather this summer of reopening.

Resources For Restaurants

  • For a list of the Downtown pilot locations and additional information (including a link to the Temporary Outdoor Business Operation Permit page that details eligibility, requirements and the application), restaurant and business owners, residents and visitors can visit
  • Interested ground-floor restaurants or small retail businesses in Downtown San Diego with questions are encouraged to contact the Partnership at Owners outside of Downtown can reach out to their Business Improvement District or the City of San Diego’s Development Services Department

This initiative is supported by the San Diego Downtown Partnership, Circulate San Diego, San Diego County Lodging Association, San Diego County Bike Coalition, San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, Climate Action Campaign, and the San Diego County Chapter of the California Restaurant Association.

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