Off Menu: Dining out in Portland should include outdoor dining

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Outdoor dining literally saved my business.

Without it, we would have been forced to make impossibly difficult choices between opening service indoors before our staff was fully vaccinated, putting them at a huge risk of getting sick, or pivoting to a to-go-only business model – both risky and expensive.

Briana VolkMost independent restaurants and bars, including ours, don’t plan for the to-go business to be a substantial part of their revenue, and when shutdowns happened in March 2020, that pivot was incredibly difficult for many. Outdoor dining allowed us to do our thing in ways that let us operate in a slightly more “normal” fashion.

But beyond the business, outdoor dining was a lifeline for me and my family. Sitting outside of our favorite haunts safely helped us in moments when we couldn’t see family and friends.

Over the last two years, we have nearly exclusively dined outside. During the winter, we became pros at bundling up, ensuring that blankets and extra hats and gloves were always packed in the car. In the summer, we were front row to some of the best weather and people watching that Maine offers. 

Two-plus years into the pandemic, parklets, patios, and outdoor dining continue to be a necessity for some of our favorite restaurants; the entire industry is still making up for two years of lost revenue. The ability to serve more guests, especially in the summer months, helps provide a cushion for businesses to survive quiet winters and creates a safety net for operators and staff.

In addition to the practical side of expanding dining into the streets is the sheer pleasure and beauty of outdoor dining in our stunning city. It creates a vibrancy on our streets that rivals cities 10 times our size. Portland is already well-known as a food destination and seeing streets, sidewalks, and parking spots full of diners is a blend of two of the best things about our city.

These spots establish new spaces for people to gather, and the closure of Exchange Street was one of my favorite examples of this renewed energy. Watching pedestrians and cyclists take over the entire street, traveling past bustling patios instead of parked cars felt welcoming and exciting. Even now, I will choose to sit outside given the option.

With outdoor dining, we have been able to sit, relax, feel the warm or cold air on our faces, and pick places we might not normally. It helped us discover new things, of course, but it has also allowed us to see our city in a new way. 

But outdoor dining is going to look a little different this year, as Evan Edmonds recently reported in the PhoenixThe street closures and open spaces of the last two years won’t be back in quite the same manner. Parklets will continue to exist for some restaurants, but many are finding the hurdles and costs too out of reach. Exchange Street will once again be filled with cars for the summer.

Restaurants have banded together to try and keep some version of expanded outdoor dining available, and restaurant guests can also get involved by engaging with our City Council to ensure the city keeps this program, year-round, and continues to promote this vibrancy wherever possible.

Come July, you’ll be thankful for these beautiful outdoor spaces to relax and enjoy a great meal, which is exactly where you’ll find my family all summer long.

Briana Volk is the co-owner of Portland Hunt + Alpine Club. She has written two cookbooks and writes about food, hospitality, parenting, and baseball. She lives in Portland with her partner Andrew and two kids, and can be reached at [email protected].