Public space has been an unexpected beneficiary of the covid-19 crisis, as governments from coast to coast have closed streets to make more room for runners, pedestrians and diners to social distance.
In Annapolis, a local civic association has long closed a stretch of West Street near Church Circle on Wednesday evenings for its “Dining Under the Stars” summer series. And with restaurants battered by months of closures, restaurateur Brian Bolter, who owns Red Red Wine and Dry 85 on the city’s historic Main Street, launched a petition to get that thoroughfare to close, too. “It was the only tangible idea I’d seen since the quarantine began,” Bolter says.
He collected more than 900 signatures, which led to discussions with neighborhood groups — including other parts of town that wanted to get in on the plan. “The challenge is we’re in a historic downtown,” Bolter says. “We have very narrow sidewalks and small storefronts.” But on June 3, streets closed in four areas of central Annapolis on a Wednesday night, letting visitors choose whether to eat freshly shucked oysters dockside, or enjoy postcard views of the State House along Maryland Avenue over a pint of Guinness. It has worked so well that streets throughout the city will be closed every night “until further notice,” including Main Street, which will shut on Thursday and Friday evenings and from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Beyond giving diners more space, the street dining zones also help restaurants’ bottom lines. The seats at the seven tables outside Dry 85 add up to about a fifth of the bourbon bar’s indoor fire capacity, but with roughly half of the restaurant’s indoor capacity returning in Maryland’s Phase 2, Bolter can rehire more staff and keep the restaurant going.
It also goes without saying that some customers are still more comfortable with the idea of dining outdoors than indoors, as experts say that the coronavirus spreads more easily inside. Offering socially distanced alfresco options seems like a wise move, and cities and jurisdictions around the Washington area continue to replace streets and parking spaces with tables. The latest is Adams Morgan, which will close part of 18th Street NW for the first time this weekend.
A few things to remember when you go out: Wear a mask. Even though you’re outdoors, you’ll almost certainly be asked to keep it on until you’re seated, and it’s required when you get up to go to the bathroom. Check reservation policies in advance. Some restaurants take them for their street tables, while others operate on a first-come, first-served basis. Call or check social media if there’s a place you’re dying to try. But in many areas, such as Annapolis and Alexandria, if your destination of choice is crowded, it’s easy to find another within walking distance. Finally, watch the clock. Bethesda, which has a limited number of street tables, has posted signs asking customers to limit their time to 90 minutes; many individual restaurants make similar requests, especially at peak hours.
Here are some of our favorite spots around the area where restaurants have taken to the streets.
Old Town Alexandria
Last year, Alexandria’s City Council approved a pilot program called King Street Place, which would turn the 100 block of King Street into a pedestrian-only zone on weekends from April through October. It was postponed until 2021 because of covid-19, but when Virginia allowed restaurants to reopen in late May, the city revisited the scheme, allowing restaurants to expand outward into the sidewalks and parking spaces around-the-clock.
“The closure of King Street has really activated that area,” says Chad Sparrow, one of the owners of Urbano 116 on that block. “Everybody wants to be outside down by the water.” Tables don’t expand too far into King Street, allowing for a comfortably distanced pedestrian walkway down the middle of the pavement. That comes in handy, because outdoor tables can be at a premium: Urbano 116’s nine tables were at capacity on a recent visit, and “we’ve been on a wait every day from open to close,” Sparrow reports.
King Street isn’t the only expanded dining option in Alexandria: Fontaine, a creperie on South Royal Street, has filled parking spaces with wooden cafe tables and pots containing bright flowers, and Virtue Feed and Grain has increased its footprint in Wales Alley, across from the Waterfront Park.
Since 2016, Annapolis’s West Street has played host to a weekly alfresco celebration called Dinner Under the Stars. Cars are banned, leaving the long stretch of pavement filled with dining tables, artists and musicians. The formula has been so successful that it’s spreading around the city — including on West Street, where the traffic-free zone has expanded from Wednesday nights to encompass Wednesday through Sunday evenings. And that’s just one part of Annapolis embracing the idea of street closures: Roads around Market Space, at the foot of the City Dock, begin closing at 7 a.m. daily, while Maryland Avenue and portions of Main Street are closed Thursday through Sunday. The result is a city that feels like a street festival on a breezy Thursday evening as much as a lively Saturday afternoon. (You can see the full schedule of closures at visitannapolis.org.)
Each area, or recovery zone, is managed by a different group that programs the street with entertainment, so it’s worth wandering between them to see what’s happening: You might find an Irish singer in Maryland Avenue, or a DJ outside the Market Space. To balance the parking lost by street closures, the city offers free parking at the Gotts Court Garage on Northwest Street and the Hillman Garage on Duke of Gloucester Street.
At many outdoor dining zones, you’d expect tables to be right outside a restaurant’s door, or at least in front of the building. That’s not the case in Bethesda, where some of the most popular streets in the city, including two blocks of Norfolk Avenue and a block of Woodmont Avenue near Bethesda Row, are closed to traffic from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day, and filled with umbrella-shaded tables that are open for anyone getting takeout from nearby restaurants. Adults enjoying socially distanced happy hours with snacks and glasses of wine and sangria from Olazzo and teenage skateboarders digging into California Tortilla burritos are equally welcome at Bethesda’s “Streetery” in the afternoon. More bars join the party later in the week, when Cordell Avenue is closed from 4 to 10 p.m.
There are rules to follow, of course: Groups at tables are limited to four people, so it might be wise to send someone to find seats while others wait in line. Alcohol is permitted, though there are “No Alcohol Beyond This Point” signs to watch out for. Remember that you’re asked to occupy a table for 90 minutes or less. (The website says tables will be cleaned between each use, but on a recent weekday, I watched groups leave and new ones take their place without seeing anyone disinfect any surfaces. Maybe bring your own wipes.) The Streetery is part of Montgomery County’s Shared Streets program, which also includes smaller closures for dining in Wheaton and Silver Spring.
Rockville’s planned Town Center development is already known for its outdoor spaces, thanks to the large, central Rockville Town Square that serves as an ice rink in the winter and a grassy public lawn in the summer. It has its share of furniture, ranging from wooden benches to colorful adirondack chairs, but two nearby streets have been closed indefinitely to add even more outdoor seating.
Gibbs Street, home to Bonchon, Finnegan’s Wake Irish Pub and Marble Slab Creamery, offers a mix of patio and in-street seating and umbrella-shaded tables over two blocks. (Note that some tables, like those in front of Bonchon, are reserved for customers at a specific restaurant.) A few blocks away, tables have been set up on East Montgomery Avenue, in front of Ben and Jerry’s and World of Beer.
Takoma Park boasts one of the lowest-key street closures in the area: One block of the northbound lane of Laurel Avenue, just above the D.C. line. It’s a section of road split by a wide median filled with benches, shady trees and a statue of the beloved Roscoe the Rooster.
There are two restaurants on the block. For most of the day, Takoma Beverage Company is a cafe with coffee, omelets and grilled cheese sandwiches. It’s also an unsung gem for Montgomery County craft beer lovers, specializing in Maryland breweries, such as Peabody Heights, Key and Union, and stocks an interesting supply of rose, sparkling wine and cocktails, too, which can be sipped at picnic tables under all-weather canopies, surrounded by strings of Pride flags. (Seating is first-come, first-served.)
A few doors down is Kin Da, a neighborhood restaurant with a split personality. “The sushi place?” asked Post food writer Tim Carman, when I queried whether he’d been there recently; “the Thai place?” asked a Weekend editor who lives nearby. Whichever cuisine you’re craving, Kin Da has a small, fenced patio that gets plenty of sun.