I was in Culver City this weekend, trying to get a table at Café Vida, and it was an hour and a half wait – at 2:00 in the afternoon! The restaurant district is hopping down there. Every nice sit-down eatery we went to had at least a 30 minute wait. It’s fair to say that people are ready for the return to dining out and enough with the sourdough starters….

It’s not just the restaurants in Culver City that are seeing the return to in person dining. A quick drive down Main Street will show those businesses that were able to quickly adapt to the new outdoor dining regulations are making their way back from the brink of disaster that took out so many of their competitors.

Stella Barra Pizza on Main and Bicknell has always been a successful showplace for high-end gourmet pizza (my personal favorite is their mushroom which is a unique twist on what is normally an overly cheesed, bland experience.) Their outdoor seating seems to be consistently packed every night of the week, with longish wait times on the big nights of Thursday, Friday and Saturday. It’s nice to see that level of sales which will keep the company and its staff operational.

Continuing down Main Street it seems that most of the mainstays like Jinya Ramen, Shoop’s Deli and The Galley have all adapted well to the outdoor dining model. It’s been a bit chilly at night, so the advent of the heater has been a godsend for those of us who still get cold. AS the summer nights come upon us, hopefully those heaters will be needed less, which will add to the restaurants’ bottom lines. Each of those heaters costs about $25 per night to operate, which when you consider the additional costs of the personal protective equipment that is required to support the staff, is eating into the razor thin margins that most restaurants are operating on.

Many of us want the expansion of the outdoor dining to continue because as my friend Jason Brubaker said, “it’s got a very European feel to it, and is more enjoyable.” I certainly agree with him that the outdoor dining atmosphere makes for a more exciting adventure, I’m also not so happy with being that close to the street to be honest. It’s not the fumes of the cars (which are not that bad thanks to the AQMD rules and catalytic converters) but the sounds that annoy me. Part of the anxiety I experience is the cars are passing just a little too close in my book.

I’ve found that I prefer the outdoor dining at places like Gilbert’s, where we’re in a set back parking lot that at least feels a bit safer, even though the street traffic sounds are still present. Same goes for the modifications that were made at Rae’s (and Teddy’s – owned by the same man) which have the benefit of being set off from the street a bit.

Where I really noticed the biggest difference is on the Promenade where the restaurants have escaped the confines of their dining rooms and expanded into the central walkway. This I find to be not only the most European feeling, but also has the added benefit of no automobile traffic. While each restaurant has co-opted swaths of the sidewalk, and even into the central corridor as 1212 has, the benefit is that there is enough walkway for individuals to pass and peruse the meals being served.

I had the joy of strolling down the Promenade this past Sunday as I was doing some night street photography and was pleasantly surprised at the crowded eateries. It’s a good sign of the recovery that is in process as we approach the summer crush of warm evenings, and languid afternoons. The Promenade seems in my entirely unscientific analysis to have lost about 15-25% of the retail establishments that would normally be the big draw. I’m hopeful that this expansion by restaurants into the walkway, its more inviting environment, and the joys of summer will be the new big draw the way that the Culver City restaurant district has become for them.

The dining industry can expect to continue to recover, especially if some new, one off, destination restaurants become the replacements for many of the lost retailers. We should encourage the property managers to avoid the big corporate tenants and to take advantage of this unique opportunity to bring back inspired, creative and ultimately attractive new concepts in dining to act as the appetizer to a new financial well-being meal.