Before the pandemic, if you wanted to dine outside, there were a limited number of restaurants that offered that option. While some contained outdoor patios, there weren’t a lot of places offering the type of streetside seating that is so popular in larger American cities and in Europe.
With the onset of COVID, however, restaurants struggled to find ways to stay afloat while dealing with drastically reduced seating capacity. One temporary solution was the city’s streamlining of its review process for outdoor dining and retail, so that restaurants could expand their seating capabilities to include outdoor space. The measure proved so popular, both with restaurants and customers, that in February 2022, Mayor Ed Gainey made it permanent, signing a new Outdoor Retail and Dining Ordinance.
“COVID changed things a lot; prior to the pandemic, there was always an interest in activating outdoor dining on the sidewalks and streets, but there was no way to enact it in a simple way on a legal and code basis,” explained Chris Watts, vice president of district development, Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. “There were challenging guidelines, and it was an onerous process that required the review of City Council and staff.
“When the pandemic hit, businesses needed more space to operate effectively,” he continued. “The city became a lot more open to thinking outside the box on different ways to incorporate and add vibrancy to its streets. That meant looking at the whole public right of way, roadways, parking lanes, and the best use of that space.”
While Market Square has long had outdoor dining areas, it was a little more complicated to turn some of Pittsburgh’s busier streets into similar spaces. Two primary districts were targeted: the 900 block of Penn Avenue, and Sixth Street between Fort Duquesne Boulevard and Liberty Avenue.
“The 900 block of Penn Avenue was already a high-quality, pedestrian-friendly block, but there was very limited ability to activate outdoor dining on the narrow sidewalks,” said Watts. “As a result of a redesign and pandemic-related iterations, that street has been transformed into a ‘slow street’ with protected sidewalks, a bike lane, and activated restaurants.”
Scott Shaffer, managing partner, Bridges & Bourbon, said that the changes to the area not only helped during the pandemic, but have also resulted in increased traffic even as COVID standards have eased.
“We had four outside tables before the pandemic but were able to add eight more tables when the city blocked off one lane of Penn Avenue, taking us from 10 to 42 seats outside,” he explained. “At the time, there were still heavy bans on how many people could sit indoors, so this made a huge difference in our capacity to meet our commitments, including keeping staff on and giving them the opportunity to make money.”
Shaffer said that the outdoor area attracts customers who are still hesitant to dine indoors, as well as those attracted to the clean, comfortable outdoor space. “It’s much more inviting to be walking down the street now because the restaurant corridor really stands out,” he said. “The area is more appealing to guests, which has resulted in increased traffic.”
On the Sixth Street corridor, there are roughly 14 restaurants representing cultures across the world that serve patrons of the Cultural District as well as visitors and locals. The Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group, which includes Meat & Potatoes, täkō, Poulet Bleu, Coop de Ville, gi-jin, täkō tôrtä, Butcher and the Rye, Fish nor Fowl, Sally Ann’s, and the Rib Room, has three restaurants in the area which have benefited from the new outdoor dining measures.
“While all of our restaurants offer outdoor dining in some capacity, our downtown restaurants—täkō, gi-jin and Sally Ann’s—are taking advantage of this expanded downtown seating,” explained Casey Henderlong, director of events and public relations for the Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group. “We originally had a smaller footprint in these locations, but we were able to expand to accommodate more guests outside once the city expanded outdoor seating.
“Utilizing the expanded patio space during the pandemic, we were able to serve a similar number of people as in the past, which helped us regain some semblance of normal sales while adhering to social distancing guidelines,” she continued. “It was a big plus for us.”
The restaurant group plans to permanently keep the expanded patios in front of täkō and gi-jin, and expects the rebranding of Sixth Street to also encompass outdoor dining at Sally Ann’s.
“Creating these outdoor dining spaces has not only helped our business, but all of the businesses in the area,” said Henderlong. “By creating comfortable, inviting places to hang out, it attracts more people downtown. While we still have plenty of people who request to sit outside because of COVID, other people just want to enjoy the light, airy vibe and the sense of fun.”
Restauranteurs in these corridors have seen such a demand for outdoor dining, in fact, that they are now exploring ways to provide the experience year-round.
“Pittsburgh has variable weather, so restaurants are exploring ways to make it comfortable in adverse conditions,” said Watts. “We’re seeing a number of innovations there, and we’re excited to see how this evolves into a year-round experience.
“Visitors and residents alike appreciate the vibrancy these outdoor dining opportunities add to a space, and it also becomes a unique addition to the pedestrian experience,” he added. “Activity breeds more activity, and we’re hearing that these corridors with street activations are seeing an increase in nighttime and weekend activity. We’ve heard loud and clear from both restaurants and constituents that they love outdoor dining and want to keep it.”