It's 9 o'clock in the morning. The temperature is approaching 90 degrees. The humidity level is off the charts. Construction is booming next door, making conversation impossible. Rush hour traffic is at its peak and the not-so-occasional Metro bus rattles by. And Debby Foy-Everett is sitting at a tiny table situated between a cement block wall and the front door of the Bagels Etc. on P Street NW.
It's the hottest, driest summer in decades. So why on earth is she consuming bagels with cream cheese and hot coffee outside at such an ungodly location?
"Because the weather is so gorgeous," deadpans Foy-Everett, on holiday from England.
But she's not alone. Look around. Otherwise sane persons are sitting curbside, in frightening proximity to the street, at "patios" and "outdoor cafes" that are really sidewalks converted into barely inhabitable dining spaces with views of a busy thoroughfare or a back alley. For al fresco ambiance, they've got oppressive heat, humidity and bus fumes.
What are these people thinking?
"It's just nice to be outside in the summertime," explains Chrisy Wood, a 28-year-old media buyer who prefers to dine outside whenever--and wherever--possible.
Certainly, in the first few weeks of spring in Washington, when winter has faded to a chill memory, when the air is fresh and the trees are in bloom, even a lone plastic table wobbling in the wind beckons to diners. In April and May, a diner can understandably accept the normal risks of eating outdoors--napkins blown off by gusts of wind; uncomfortable, uncushioned chairs; honking traffic; the debris from jackhammers digging up the streets to install cables.
But as spring melts into D.C.'s infamously muggy summer, why would anyone willingly sit outside sipping hot liquids in full sun?
"It's my first cup of coffee of the day--it doesn't matter where I'm sitting," explains Allan Harrison while sitting at XandO in Dupont Circle at midday, with the temperature at 102. He is even shunning the shaded portion of the sidewalk. Were all of the inside seats taken? Oh no, he just likes to be outside.
His buddy and cohort in masochism that day, Tom Burch, shares the same mind-set. He simply dons a hat and sunglasses and plunks himself down with his newspaper; as long as he has a breeze, he's fine.
"Oh, sitting outdoors is a prerequisite for summertime dining," gushes John Lineberger, a 34-year-old art director. "There's such a short window of opportunity, you'll do whatever it takes, though maybe not in the dead of summer."
Lineberger is willing to sacrifice comfort for a more laid-back experience than staid, formal restaurants would provide--to an extent. It's an escapist tendency, he explains, for Washingtonians sick of being encased in buildings.
"There's nothing more romantic than dining in a secluded courtyard, basking in the dappled sunlight while wisteria blossoms fall across your plate and into your wine glass," sighs Lineberger, reminiscing about a recent meal at the Iron Gate Inn on N Street NW.
Granted Washington has many wonderful courtyards, brick-lined gardens and tranquil patios where an elegant meal can be enjoyed in style and comfort. But we're not talking here about the picturesque outdoor dining at Old Angler's Inn way up river on MacArthur Boulevard, or the patio at the Tabard Inn, also on N Street NW. We're talking about the restaurants that perch their tables and chairs along the curbs of Connecticut, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania avenues, or the streets surrounding Dupont Circle, downtown Bethesda and Old Town.
What drives people to eat practically in the street?
For those who live or work without air conditioning, outside dining, even in oppressive heat, provides access to whatever cool breeze there might be. And according to Kitt Vidnovic, concierge at the Washington Monarch Hotel in Foggy Bottom, the key to a successful outdoor venue is striking a balance between sun, shade and air movement. "People know there's not really a view downtown, so they make their decision based on other factors, such as the presence of a breeze."
Many Washingtonians confined to the office live for lunch hour, which coincides with prime tanning hours. "If I'm going to eat outdoors, I usually try to do it at lunch. I don't have a lot of spare time, so I hate to miss that critical tanning period between noon and 2 p.m." explains Judy Hawkins, a 29-year-old Internet account representative. And for the less-than-enthusiastic (and paler) lunch companions of these sun worshipers, DC Coast on K Street downtown offers sunscreen lotion for those caught up in--but not prepared for--the heat of the moment.
Outdoor seating can be a great way to distract kids during mealtime, to the extent that they behave better, according to many parents. "It's a novelty," explains Arlene Kurtz, mother of Jason, 7, and Brandon, 4, who were enjoying breakfast at the Sunrise Cafe on 17th and L streets NW.
And some outdoor restaurants are pet friendly. "The poor little things want to get out and socialize, too!" says Patrick Young, a sales manager who takes his dogs, Seville and Sophie, everywhere. During the summer, many restaurants are sympathetic to this plight and allow pets to remain nearby--but not within--specified dining quarters.
But perhaps no creature fancies himself more of a social animal than man himself.
Multi-tasking, work-hard/play-hard Washingtonians will gladly plunk themselves down to cram in a bit of socializing no matter what the venue. To See or To Be Seen often outweighs common sense on a hot steamy Washington night.
Aubrey Petrucci, a 29-year-old office manager, admits to scheduling her social agenda around outdoor tables even during the middle of D.C.'s sweltering summer. But like many very social Washingtonians on a tight budget, Petrucci is reluctant to let go of her food dollars on a whim. So she compromises by going for drinks at places where she enjoys the atmosphere, such as the ever popular Georgetown waterfront. "Who knows? It might rain the next day. We don't have perfect Southern Californian weather year round, so we have to enjoy it while we can."
The desire to commingle seems to draw the young crowd to Montgomery Grill on Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda, to Hawk and Dove and half a dozen other bars lining Pennsylvania Avenue on Capitol Hill, and to dozens of restaurants in Alexandria, including Southside 815.
Megan Allday, 34, practically presides over the outdoor tables at Fox and Hounds, one of numerous sidewalk patios lining 17th street near Dupont Circle. Every Tuesday during happy hour (and the hours that ensue), the population at her table increases as friends meander by and join the crowd.
Allday adamantly prohibits anyone from ducking into the air conditioning. She prefers to sit outside, solving the world's problems and watching the world--or at least the rest of Washington--go by. Not to mention the garbage trucks.
"Once you start talking, you forget about the heat," explains Yazid Saidani. Saidani admittedly prefers to sip his espresso and converse inside, not in front of, the air-conditioned Pallapio's Cafe on Wilson Boulevard in Arlington, but caves to peer pressure.
At Cactus Cantina on Wisconsin Avenue in Cleveland Park, tables overlook either the heavily trafficked avenue with a bus stop nearby or the coffee shop across Macomb Street. And yet the wait for outdoor tables is often more than an hour long.
"It's a neighborhood, so people constantly see their friends and neighbors walking along the street and have a nice chat with them. It's very social." explains General Manager Joses Belloni. "It's a great view."