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As we soak up the last moments of sun, you may have noticed that summer in Santa Monica looked a bit different this year. Warm nights spent with family occurred in our backyards, going out to dinner at our favorite restaurants quickly turned into fun kitchen experiments, and conversations with loved ones occurred six-feet apart. COVID-19 was sudden and unexpected, to say the least, causing this shift in everyone’s lifestyle. As we learn to accept our new normal, the City of Santa Monica has worked diligently to embrace the change, starting with the new al fresco dining options.

Santa Monica is no stranger to patio dining, but in recent months we have seen outdoor dining grow in popularity. The City’s serene, beachy ambience and world-famous weather provide for the perfect outdoor experience. This popular trend has taken root at some iconic Santa Monica eateries such as Urth Caffé on Main Street, known for their abundance of organic, plant based options, and The Upper West on Pico Blvd. where you can dine on gourmet cocktails and meals sourced from the farmers market.

We first saw this al fresco explosion occur on Main Street, which houses an eclectic variety of locally owned establishments. For the past three years, Main Street has focused on producing more outdoor dining options, creating small parklets – sidewalk extensions used for seating – to allow visitors and locals to take advantage of outdoor dining and seating. Three “pilot” parklet locations were set up on Main Street and they proved to be a success. When COVID-19 threatened to close many businesses, the Main Street Business Improvement Association, with help from the Ocean Park Association, kicked into high gear and spearheaded the movement to create more parklets so restaurants can quickly and safely abide by the state and county’s COVID-19 regulations and remain open.

Because indoor dining is currently not allowed under LA County Department of Public Health’s health and safety requirements, these parklets and sidewalk dining areas have sprung up all over Santa Monica and have created a new and unique dining experience. Restaurateurs are also taking advantage of their new spaces by getting a little creative and designing gorgeous, upscale dining landscapes right in their own front yards and back parking lots. To support these efforts, the City created a free Temporary Use of Outdoor Space permit program that has helped local businesses safely open up outdoors citywide.

Say goodbye to the days of being cramped in a small restaurant, unable to hear your partner from across the table, or stuck with the worst seat in the house. The ability to move the dining experience from indoors to outdoors provides a breath of fresh air that is a much needed break from our at-home routine.

Ashland Hill is the sight of one of the three original parklets established in 2017 along Main Street. The craft beer and wine garden has taken advantage of the extra space provided by the city and is now able to seat their customers in four different areas: the existing parklet, a newly built parklet, their back patio space, and on weekends they are able to set up seating in the parking lot.

Co-Owner of Ashland Hill, Mark Verge, owns five restaurants in and around Santa Monica, including The OP Cafe, Margo’s and Art’s Table. Verge says that “these {the outdoor patios} have really saved our businesses.” According to Verge, the ability to seat customers outside has actually increased business for the OP Cafe; a small brunch cafe located on Ocean Park Blvd. in Sunset Park. The business was “not doing very well” before the spread of COVID-19, says Verge, but the ability to place tables on the sidewalk out front, as well as the new patio area set up next to a few classic cars at Ed’s Airport Auto Service has brought new attention to the family-friendly cafe.

The success of outdoor dining is not limited to Main Street or Ocean Park, many outdoor dining set-ups are popping up in other popular locations like Montana and Ocean Ave.

Iconic Ocean Ave. staple, Chez Jay, known for their nautical “dive bar meets classy joint” ambience has created the perfect outdoor escape. The 61-year-old, historical landmark “really struggled” during the first few months following the outbreak of COVID-19, according to manager Chris Anderson. With regulations changing every few weeks, their quaint establishment was surviving off of The Backyard at Chez Jay, their brand new patio space located in the back of the restaurant. It was not until mid-July that they decided to extend their dining area to their parking lot as a substitute for their indoor dining space.

Anderson wanted to maintain the cozy, intimate feel of their indoor dining area, while still being practical. They set up a fence made of reclaimed wood to act as a partition between the sidewalk and the outdoor setting, a few space-area rugs scattered across the floor with string lights above tables. Six tables are placed six-feet apart and are decorated with a white and red checkered tablecloth, a basket of their famous bar nuts and a small candle.

Each patio serves a different selection of plates and cocktails; Their new al fresco setting serves their traditional menu items, while The Backyard at Chez Jay serves happy-hour bites and cocktails. They are currently serving a limited menu, but Anderson assures that their most popular items weren’t going anywhere. Some of the house favorites include their Butter Steak which is “by far our most popular item,” according to Anderson, as well as the Sand Dabs Saute Almondine. As for their Backyard menu, sit down and enjoy their loaded Southwest Steak Nachos or their Crispy Chicken Sandwich.

Hunter Hall, Executive Director of the Main Street Business Improvement Association, believes that the al fresco experience will continue to grow “as the public psyche has changed” in favor of outdoor dining. He credits California’s beautiful weather, and the ability for restaurateurs to become more creative with their use of their outdoor dining space, especially as fall approaches.

Director of Marketing and Communication for Downtown Santa Monica, Mackenzie Carter, says that businesses on Third Street and those surrounding the Promenade district are getting “extremely creative” with the ways that they are decorating their parklets “that have helped bring downtown and the Promenade back to life.” According to Carter, “Residents and visitors have enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to experience some normalcy” and enjoy their time outdoors.

If you would like to support your local restaurants and their hard-working staff, bring your mask and take a stroll through any neighborhood. If you choose not to dine out, many establishments have take-out , curbside pickup and delivery options available. It can be hard navigating our new lives behind plexi-glass and face masks, but we will navigate this stage in our lives together as a community. #EatLocalSM

Click here for a complete list of Al fresco dining restaurants.