D.C.’s sidewalk cafes once a hard sell

August 3, 2011

In these lazy, hazy days of summer, you have probably at least considered dining at one of Washington’s 450-plus sidewalk cafes. After all, it’s a perfect escape.

“You’re trapped inside all day long, so it gives you a chance to get outside and out of the A/C,” Jen Shoemaker, who works at National Geographic, said while reading a newspaper over a tuna sandwich at a nearby Potbelly Sandwich Shop. “It’s really a savior in the summer.”

Be thankful you live in Washington 2011. It was just 50 years ago, on Aug. 8, 1961, that the first sidewalk cafe appeared in the city.

After a trip to Paris, Harry Zitelman, the owner of Bassin’s restaurant at 13th and E streets NW, spent two years trying to convince the local authorities that European-style dining would work. Residents, at the time, were divided about an outdoor cafe’s benefits.

“I think Washington is just perfect the way it is,” socialite Gwen Cafritz told a reporter in 1959. “I don’t think the tempo in Washington is suited to sidewalk cafes. Nobody would have time to sit in them.”

City officials raised myriad objections, as described in a Washington Post story at the time: Sidewalk cafes expose food to “windblown foreign matter,” creating a health hazard and attracting birds and rodents, the city’s public health director said; too many cafes would cause a “cessation” of pedestrian traffic, forcing walkers into the streets, where they would get run over, another official cautioned; and tables and chairs would interfere with the deployment of fire hoses, the fire chief warned.

But the strongest objection came from Deputy Police Chief Howard V. Covell, who described sidewalk cafes as “a potential source of disorder.”

Pedestrians might brush against patrons, resulting in a punch in the nose, he told the city commissioners. Pickpockets would proliferate, unable to resist easily reached pocketbooks. Finally, he said, “this type of operation would provide a favorable setting for ladies of easy virtue as they ply their trade up and down the street.”

Nevertheless, Bassin’s, founded in 1939, succeeded in its efforts, setting out 15 tables under a striped awning, with a man dressed as a gendarme on the opening day. The growth in outside eateries was slow; by 1977 there were 85, perhaps due in part to pioneer Zitelman.

“I fought for sidewalk cafes for nearly three years, and now everybody is coming in on the gravy,” he said that year. “When restaurant owners asked me how my cafe was doing in the ’60s when there were few of them, I told them then that it was no big deal and that the cafe wasn’t doing well. I wasn’t being honest, I admit, but I didn’t want any competition.”

The Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District, which conducts a survey of sidewalk cafes in that area, found a double-digit increase since 2009: from 95 in 2009, to 123 in 2010, to 135 this summer. More than 3,200 seats are available.

Genevieve Marcus, who was eating a steak-and-cheese sandwich and reading a genetics book at a sidewalk cafe near her office on L Street NW on Wednesday, said it’s hard to resist outdoor seating. “If you can put a table outside, people are going to want to sit there,” she said.

Jade Yoho, 30, a Chicagoan visiting her sister here, said she liked eating outside at Lincoln restaurant on Vermont Avenue NW for the fresh air and things to watch.

“You can eat inside any day of the year if you want to,” she said.

City officials have come around, too. There are still permits to obtain, and a hearing must be held, but Chris Shaheen of the city’s planning department said that in the five or six years he has been on the public-space committee, fewer than five requests have been denied, mostly because a lack of adequate sidewalk space.

“I think there’s a growing awareness of the value of public space and people wanting to be out in public space,” Shaheen said.

“It really creates an enlivened streetscape,” said Matthew Marcou of the District’s Department of Transportation. “It makes people engage in their neighborhoods and helps with street safety.”

Allison Newhouse sat at sidewalk cafe on 17th Street NW Wednesday for the first time while enjoying a late salami-and-cheese lunch. A recent transplant from New York, she said she noticed outdoor restaurant seating as a nice feature of D.C. living.

“It’s easier here because there aren’t as many people on the sidewalk,” she said. “It’s way too crowded in New York.”

Patricia Sullivan seeks out news about Alexandria and Arlington County for the Washington Post.
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