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The outdoor dining dilemma

“The majority of the city’s restaurants cannot work outdoors. Outdoor dining really only suits cafés, not to mention Melbourne’s problematic weather.” Chris Lucas

That's Degraves St., one of Melbourne's famous laneways - in this case famous for outside dining. The picture on the left is then and the other two are now. Well not right now because we are still technically in a stage 4 lockdown - but out at midnight, so probably back to the much diminished scenes at right tomorrow.

COVID has hit the hospitality industry really, really hard, and this last mini lockdown may well have been the final straw for some, seeing as how it covered Valentine's Day, the Tennis Open first weekend and the Chinese New Year. All that food they ordered for the occasion now wasted. Thousands of dollars lost.

Last year, just before summer as we came out of our long lockdown there was a great deal of hype about extending outdoor dining areas in Melbourne and the surrounding inner suburbs. Grants were given, permits either waived or made much easier, parking areas given up and streets closed. Based on a similar initiative in New York it was going to be the solution, and would return Melbourne to the vibrant most liveable city in the world that it has been for the last few years.

Specific areas were designated for development - and I have to say I thought - oh the usual suspects - but then I suppose that's where most of the cafés are. 'Parklets' sprang up - a stretch of the road previously used for parking, now set up with flooring, barriers, and tables at the regulation distance apart. Depending on the businesses next door they sometimes extended further than the frontage of the particular café or restaurant. I believe each business got a grant of $5,000 to assist, although there may have been extra - some from local councils and some from the Victorian government. Probably not enough though to set up a sufficiently attractive space. There would have been the need to invest some of your own money as well. For a couple of extra tables in some cases - I don't think so. For others though it was great.

It was designed to increase the area available for tables, because of the restrictions inside. Mind you the only two restaurants that I have visited since COVID lockdown - Mercers and Paris Go, do not seem to me to have decreased the number of tables inside. Mercers was always pretty well spaced out anyway, but Paris Go has some tables that are very close together. Are they illegal?

As an aside I wonder whether interior designers, urban designers, architects, etc. - all the people involved in doing this sort of thing - have been one category of business that has done well out of all of this?

One of the more innovative designs that I found was the 'pop up pod' - single or double storey, some of them quite elaborate - the sort of thing they use to make dining areas for events.

And I'm pretty sure the designers have been cashing in on these. But you need a bit of space for them - and a bit of money - rather more than the government grants I think. Nevertheless I think this kind of thing has been 'popping up' at the beach and along the river and maybe out at the wineries. But then they've generally got a lot of space for extra tables outside anyway.

However, outside dining doesn't, indeed can't, work for everyone. You may not have enough pavement.

“We only have a small footpath trading area. It only allows us to have two tables but we’re hoping the Honda dealership next door, which has no use of the footpath, will be happy for us to take it over, otherwise two tables won’t be enough to reopen.” A Melbourne café owner

You may not be in one of those designated areas, so you can't take parking space. You could be on a slope. You could be in a basement. Like Mercer's you might not have any outside space anyway - unless you take your own car park, but then where will your customers park. You might not have money and a nice wide pavement,like Florentino's in which to expand. Mind you even Florentino's new extra space is probably not enough to compensate for no inside diners - which was sort of what was happening at one point. Fewer inside diners anyway.

Then, as many people have pointed out there is the weather. Well Melbourne has been coping with the weather since forever. Those tables down the middle of Degraves Street used to be packed even if it was raining or freezing cold. Because there are umbrellas and heaters. I remember walking down Lygon St. around midnight once in the middle of winter. It was freezing and the pavement tables were buzzing. So if you provide enough cover and heat or protection from the heat, then outside dining is fine. I actually remember dining outside in France once in a beautiful village - Olonzac - in the Languedoc, and it got quite cold as the night went on. So the owners provided all the guests with blankets! Which I gather happens quite frequently in colder climes.

I noted a few other innovative answers to the problem - most of them already in place, but some new. These are some - there are probably others.

  • Right at the beginning of all of this. Picnics were the thing. Cafés and even upmarket restaurants provided take-away picnics, sometimes with the option of 'renting' a table in the parkland nearby. No good if there is no parkland nearby of course. This one is in the Domain near the Botanical Gardens.

  • In Yarraville they have closed one street (Ballarat Street), laid artificial grass down the centre and set up chairs and benches for play and for picnics, as well as providing extra space for café seating. Now why don't they do that sort of thing more often? Melbourne, unlike Sydney, I have to say is well provided with parkland, but still some more laneways could probably benefit from this kind of treatment.

  • And indeed they have put that artificial grass down here and there in Federation Square so you can picnic there as well. I have always thought they need more shade in Federation Square - it's very hot in the middle of summer. Some trees, some big shade cloths?

  • On the Yarra in summer near Flinders Street Station the Arbory bar - there all year, sets up a pontoon on the river. Normally it is absolutely packed. This year not so packed and I think you have to book your two hour spot which is well space. But a really great idea that could be extended elsewhere surely.

  • Rooftops - there are already a number of rooftop bars in Melbourne, but some cafés have appropriated some rooftops. Cities, except Rome it seems to me, never make enough use of their rooftops. Views, open air - the opportunity for gardens ...

  • Food trucks. In recent years the food truck scene has expanded from Mr. Whippy and doughnuts, to include all manner of exciting food. They are probably uniquely suited to operating in the COVID environment, because they are "the smallest kitchen with the biggest dining room." Raph Rashid. I'm sure you have to have permits, but there must be innumerable open spaces where you could set up shop. And there are even specific events where the trucks are the feature - such as the Truck Stop at the Queen Victoria Market in Queen St. on Wednesday evenings in February. Not tonight, but next week. Oh dear that's only one more. Maybe they will extend into March.

So yes - lots of opportunities with local and state government help to eat outside so that we can experience the enormous pleasure of eating out:

"Here with people bringing drinks in proper glasses and telling me about a special gin. Here with angels delivering food on actual plates and – never to be diminished – clearing it away again." Dani Valent - Good Food

You could say the same about eating inside I suppose, but eating outside is special is it not? Even if it's just a sandwich, or a coffee and cake or an ice cream, and even if it's in your own hometown.

"People love eating and drinking outside. Such is the deep, almost primal, desire for outside hospitality that every time a sandwich/milk bar puts out a couple of tables and chairs on the footpath right next to the parked cars, they are always being used." Future Food

And yet there are the naysayers. I'm talking here about those doing the eating, not those providing the food - I will come to them in a moment. Apparently after the big announcement last year of all the government initiated outside dining ventures The Age's fine dining reviewer Stephen Downes wrote an article in which he said (amongst other things):

"Melbourne is not New York, Rome or Paris. Eating outdoors in those cities is performed for performance reasons – you want to be seen to be doing it. It's cool. You may watch strange folk also trying to be cool. You may imagine that you're a local. Sipping an espresso on the Via del Corso might boost what's left of your self-esteem. By all means go ahead and consume traffic fumes and try to make yourself heard over the noise of internal combustions." Stephen Downes

He might be right about the petrol fumes, but he's not right about the performance thing. Well yes some people are just trying to look cool - but they do that in Melbourne too. Indeed possibly even more. Melbourne likes to think of itself as the queen of cool. But it's sort of exciting, and certainly interesting to sit in a street side café and watch the world go by. People are endlessly fascinating.

He goes on to say or at least imply that you really can't serve high quality food outside. Absolute nonsense. There are many Michelin starred restaurants in earth shatteringly beautiful spots that provide outside dining. Indeed the outside dining would be the thing. It's not always a view, sometimes it's just a garden but not only does it enhance the experience, it also allows those restaurant owners to double - or more - the number of tables in the tourist season. Almost invariably when we have eaten in Italy or France, we have eaten outside - always where possible. Such as this beautiful hotel garden restaurant in St. Rémy de Provence. It was my birthday, the night was warm, the garden was beautiful and the food was divine. It was, in a word, memorable:

So no, Stephen, fine food can be served outside as well as in. And the added bonus of eating outside - even at home - is that it makes you feel that life is a holiday, and it improves the quality of the food - yes it does.

"Good (not necessarily great) food tastes terrific in a beautiful setting ... eating and drinking outside is not just for the beach: It provides another dimension to hospitality and just seems to make life better " Future Food

Back to Melbourne though and the restaurant and café owners. What do they think of the push to eat outside? Well I guess the majority approve and it has probably helped - around 75-85% according to some surveys, but there is some dissent, because for all those reasons cited above, it hasn't helped everyone. What they really want is to be able to open fully again. They also see themselves as potentially doing a better job than the politicians. Well you would wouldn't you?

"Restaurants adhere to strict health and safety guidelines every single day we operate and we are more than capable of perfecting a COVID-safe plan for opening indoors and outdoors and keeping our customers safe," Mallory Wall

"Our industry has thrived on individual creativity. Get out of our way and trust us. We've proven we can follow the rules, that we care about our staff and we care about our customers ... It's not their doing that we're the most liveable city in the world." Con Christopoulos

Which is sort of true. And indeed those that are nimble on their feet have found ways to survive through all this - restaurant quality meals for you to serve up at home. gourmet picnics, all manner of different take-away options, cooking classes ... Some - like Shane Delia of Maha have set up new businesses - Providore, but there are lots of others who have really struggled. The solution is surely, as in all things, for the two groups to get together and plan a workable and ongoing outcome. For they both have the same end in mind. Melbourne the most liveable city in the world status and jobs and money for all.

And what about those politicians? Well the cities of Melbourne and Yarra - the central Melbourne councils are in financial trouble. They have sacrificed revenue from parking, although, also to be fair, not all of this is from giving up parking spaces. Indeed to be honest most of it is probably because of less CBD visitors. But they have also thrown a lot of money at this. An Age article - which actually was the inspiration for this post stated that the City of Yarra made a loss of $8.5 million in parking income last year.

The program is slated to end soon - end of March for one council, end of June for the other. So what will happen then, when there is no more extra outside space, or financial assistance? I suppose they are hoping that we shall all be back to normal by then, and, honestly, the signs are reasonable - for the home crowd anyway. No tourists or overseas students though for a long time to come.

As for Dan well he, as always, is sort of an optimist/pessimist all at the same time.

“We’re the cultural and dining capital of our nation. That means, when it comes to reimagining what eating and entertainment means under COVID Normal, there’s no one better equipped than Melbourne and Victoria.

It will be our innovation, ideas and creativity that will help us find – and maintain – our COVID Normal.” Daniel Andrews

I'm not eating today - it's a day of fast, but because at last it's summer, I'm already thinking about fine dining in the garden tomorrow.


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