Dining Outdoors in Downtown

Over the weekend Laura and I ate at the Old Town Grill on Center Street. I’m not going to get into the food because this isn’t a food blog, but I was struck by how the restaurant has created one of the more successful outdoor dining experiences in Provo.

This is an older picture; the Old Towne Grill has since added umbrellas above the tables. However, the best part may be the wooden planters on either end of the dining space. They create an intimate and protected zone — where pedestrians aren’t constantly bumping into tables — that’s ideal for people watching.

The Old Towne Grill also benefits from its location on Center Street, as opposed to noisier and wider University Ave. And while no space is perfect, eating at these tables didn’t feel like sitting in the middle of a walkway or like being on display. All of these elements are essential for outdoor dining areas, or any relaxing city space for that matter.

Various interests in Provo are trying to encourage more outdoor dining, and the effort has already seen fruits as more and more restaurants invest in sidewalk tables. But not every eatery is as successful as the Old Towne Grill, with some falling victim to poor location while others suffer simply from poorly executed cafe seating. And like anything in a city, effort matters less than intelligent implementation that actually attracts people to a great space.

Below are some examples of successes and shortcomings from various downtown restaurants. Check back tomorrow for post on how restaurants from other parts of the world deal with the challenges of outdoor dining.

One of my favorite restaurants, Black Sheep Cafe also has some of the more challenging outdoor seating space in Provo. For starters, University Ave is sometimes so loud it can be difficult to hear conversation. On top of that, there are no physical barriers protecting these diners. They’re so exposed its like they’re doing performance art rather than eating dinner. Exposed, noisy, and exhibition-like dining is the last thing many people are looking for in a place to sit and talk for a while. It’s a testament to Black Sheep’s quality that the people in this picture came anyway.

Again, Black Sheep Cafe offers great food but exposed outdoor tables. Even adding more tables into a denser cluster might help this space feel more intimate, as would planters, fencing or other mostly-symbolic barriers.

Earlier this year, Station 22 — which has some of the best outdoor dining I’ve experienced in Provo — set up tables on the side walk to the left of pedestrian traffic (as pictured above). By the time I ate outside this year, this table had been moved in closer to the building, much like the table in the background. The move was an improvement because it felt less like eating in the middle of traffic. The recently refurbished covering also helps create an intimate, shady space. Station 22 further benefits from a storefront that is set back a few inches from neighboring buildings.

It’s no wonder these tables at Enliten aren’t getting much use; they’re positioned in direct sunlight in the middle of the day and no one likes eating in glaring sunlight. The restaurant later added umbrellas, which significantly improved the dining experience. This picture was taken shortly after Enliten opened, but these tables have since been getting decent use.

The well-used tables in the background belong to Enliten and are a big improvement over the previous picture. Note how they’re also pushed in closer to the building than the tables in the foreground of this picture.
Those red umbrellas and corresponding tables in the foreground belong to Gloria’s Little Italy. Those tables struggle a bit more because they’re closer to University Ave, and therefore in a noisier spot. They also take up more of the sidewalk, meaning more incursions into diners’ personal space by pedestrians.

Sammy’s location on quiet 100 West gives it an advantage most restaurants don’t enjoy. The result is that Sammy’s simply needed to put out a few benches to create a great spot. It’s also worth mentioning that eating inside Sammy’s can be a bit chaotic. It’s noisy, warm, and sometimes cramped. Like some southern European restaurants, the whole point seems to be outdoor dining. That’s a valuable lesson other restaurants could learn and it’s no wonder that Sammy’s outdoor tables are among the best used in Provo. By contrast, Black Sheep Cafe has one of the best indoor spaces in Provo, so there’s little incentive to go outside.

Tables at the now-defunct Spice Grill. The umbrellas and wide sidewalk help these tables occupy an intimate space, but they’re still relatively exposed. When foot traffic gets heavy — and this is one of the few places where that happens — the eating experience could get a little cramped.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone using these tables at Spark. They succeed by having planters on either side, but the overhead covering is too high and minimal to be effective. This spot also ends up in direct sunlight for much of the day. Umbrellas would probably be a big improvement, though the noise of University Ave. might be an insurmountable challenge. I also feel like the tables’ relationship to the building is a bit different than at other restaurants. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I think it may have to do with the building’s vaulted, extra-tall first floor and dark windows. Other buildings in Provo seem to reach out and encompass diners; this one seems to push them away.

This spot at the Center Street Deli looks pretty bleak in this picture, but I’ve actually seen it filled with people on a number of occasions. I believe it has umbrellas up during business hours (this picture was taken early in the morning) but either way it shows a relatively good spot that’s nevertheless outdoors. Like the planters at the Old Towne Grill, the two buildings on either side of the eating area protect diners without actually forcing them inside. And like Sammy’s, the interior of this restaurant can’t accommodate many people. One of the few structural improvements here would be some sort of barrier — plants, for example — between the tables and the parking lot behind them.

Los Hermanos also deserves a special mention. For some reason I couldn’t find my picture of that building, but that restaurant’s outdoor dining is surrounded by small fences. That clearly signals to diners and passersby alike whose space is where and what the sidewalk should be used for.

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3 Comments

Filed under Downtown, Food

3 responses to “Dining Outdoors in Downtown

  1. Heather Anthony

    I walk to and from work every day on Center Street and I get most annoyed by Los Hermanos’ seating. I agree it is the best at encompassing its patrons in an inviting and separate area, but I hate it as a pedestrian. The sidewalk there is really cramped with the restaurant seating on one side and (city) planters on the other, creating an inconvenient bottle neck. I always find myself having to slow down and pause in between planters to let another pedestrian going the opposite direction pass by. The dining space and planters take up practically 3/4 of the sidewalk there. Here’s a picture I found through Google: http://www.deseretnews.com/images/article/midres/690308302/690308302.jpg

    So as not to be just a complainer, here’s a dreamy solution. There’s an alley right next to Los Hermanos with parking, and it shares the alley with the Wells Fargo parking structure. Get rid of those parking spaces, (they can presumably park in the Wells Fargo structure), and create an even better outdoor dining area there, clearing up the sidewalk. Occasional pedestrian bottle necks be gone!

    • That’s a cool idea for changing the seating. If it’s the space I’m thinking of it may be slated for a new building, but I might just be mixing up two separate spots.

      Either way though, I didn’t realize that foot traffic go so heavy there that it created a bottle neck (except during festivals and whatnot). But yeah, on the one hand I’m disappointed to hear that, but on the other I’m glad there’s that many people out walking.

  2. Tosh Metzger

    ive spoken with black sheep cafe management and they wanted to add a portico exterior to cover their outdoor seating, but have issues because its a STATE ROAD and have requirements to have seating on STATE ROADS. also, the provo design review board has to be involved because its an HISTORIC BUILDING. they want to make sure its all up to par with what they want. either way, black sheep cafe is AMAZING, but there are other issues involved other than planters and umbrellas 🙂

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