How COVID ‘unlocked’ a new dining experience in Walnut Creek


WALNUT CREEK – With summer just around the corner, the downtown Walnut Creek food scene has rebounded dramatically, a far cry from the same time last year when restaurants were feeling all the sting of home care orders.

“We’re a thousand times better off than last May,” Candace Williams, manager of Broderick Roadhouse on Bonanza Street, said in an interview. “Things are really improving.”

At the time, the bar and grill was lucky enough to make a few thousand dollars a day with take out orders, Williams said. Today, even though indoor dining is still limited to 50% capacity, Broderick Roadhouse draws about five times as much.

And it’s not just business as usual before the pandemic. In addition to take-out, the restaurant is making more curb deliveries and pick-ups than ever before as it responds to consumer habits drastically altered by the consequences of the pandemic. Where there used to be only two tables right outside its door, Broderick Roadhouse also has a large patio with half a dozen additional tables set up in the parking lot.

“We’re still not completely back to our old pace of activity and we’re waiting for what I call ‘COVID cobwebs’ to come off, but we’re getting there one day at a time,” Williams said.

WALNUT CREEK, CA – March 30: An outdoor dining area at Torsap Thai Kitchen is seen along Locust Street in downtown Walnut Creek, Calif. On Tuesday, March 30, 2021 (Jane Tyska / Bay Area News Group)

Like other cities, Walnut Creek has cast aside paperwork to help restaurants survive through tough times – allowing them to extend outdoor seating to sidewalks, parking lots, and some streets, even to designate certain parking spots. like 15 minute zones for curbside pickup. .

The sea of ​​outdoor tables and patios has given the city center such a special, almost European vibe that some restaurant owners are asking the city to let them stay after the pandemic is over.

And city council members have indicated they are open to the idea of ​​even perhaps closing a street here and there to accommodate alfresco dining.

“I totally agree with not going back to pre-pandemic,” said Councilor Loella Haskew. “It was based on an economy that started in the 1950s and lasted until the end of the 20th century, but the world is a different place,” she added. “We were going to have to do something no matter what.”

Walnut Creek isn’t the only city testing the opportunities offered by pandemic-related health orders.

WALNUT CREEK, CA – MARCH 30: Outdoor dining areas are seen along Locust Street in this drone view of downtown Walnut Creek, Calif. On Tuesday, March 30, 2021 (Jane Tyska / Bay Area News Group)

San Jose has launched “Al Fresco,” a program that allows businesses to set up tables in parking lots, street parking spaces, public parks and plazas. City leaders are now planning to permanently close a section of street along popular San Pedro Square to accommodate the bustling area.

“I really think it opened up another side of the dining experience,” said Bradley Wills, director of the Main Street Burma 2 sit-down, said in an interview. “I think people have taken a lot of things for granted, and now a lot of them enjoy having an outdoor dining area, especially when you’re in a beautiful place to dine like Walnut Creek.”

At last week’s council meeting, during a discussion of how downtown businesses held up last year, Deputy City Manager Teri Killgore presented some positive news: So as eight of the city’s restaurants closed during the pandemic, 15 opened in their stead. In all, the downtown area has around 130 restaurants.

“Our small restaurants and retailers are showing their resilience,” Killgore said.

As residents continue to work from home – some of them permanently – the city may need to change its planning approach to accommodate the change in traditional consumption patterns, she added.

Staff suggested that the city consider allowing restaurants to build mini-patios year-round on sidewalks and even consider limiting car traffic on certain streets or closing certain blocks entirely to promote more pedestrian activity between businesses.

Pedestrians walk past the entrance to Lokanta Mediterranean Grill & Bar in Walnut Creek, Calif. On Thursday, December 7, 2017 (Jose Carlos Fajardo / Bay Area News Group)

There could be downsides, Killgore admitted. For example, outdoor tables might block pedestrians from seeing storefronts, parking might be more difficult to find, and street parades or other downtown events might be more difficult to organize.

Too many tents and tarps could also lead to a clutter effect unless there is a clear, cohesive design that ties them together, she added.

Although she supported the idea of ​​street closures, Councilor Cindy Silva noted that establishments serving alcohol have sparked noise complaints after moving their activities outside.

But Gursoy Kavgaci, manager of Lokanta Mediterranean Bar and Grill on Locust Street, said in an interview that outdoor drinks – as well as dining – have become so popular that he thinks it’s imperative that they be allowed. to stay.

“Most clients love it and want to keep it permanent,” Kavgaci said. “Most customers ask to be seated outside first, and if there is no room, they decide to sit inside.”

Burma 2 has had an outdoor patio since opening in mid-2019. During the fall and winter months of that year, however, the patio was largely unused as guests huddled inside, away from the cold weather.

That changed earlier this year when California allowed restaurants to reopen with limited indoor capacity. Burma 2 quickly joined forces with others to strengthen its outdoor offering: better lighting arrangements, heat lamps at each table and tarpaulins for protection from the elements.

WALNUT CREEK, CA – March 30: Umbrellas are seen in an outdoor dining area along Bonanza Street in this drone view of downtown Walnut Creek, Calif. On Tuesday, March 30, 2021 (Jane Tyska / Bay Area News Group)

“People are drawn to seeing a lot of other people walking around outside,” Wills said. “We have a lot of dogs now – everyone loves dogs! There is all this feeling that normalcy is back.

Mayor Kevin Wilk said European-style alfresco dining shows promise, but the city needs to ensure restaurants meet certain standards. This means no haphazardly arranged benches or seats too close to the street, Wilk said.

The board took no action but agreed to revisit the idea at a later date.

In the meantime, restaurant managers are trying to make the most of the current business model.

“We’ve pretty much rehired all of our staff,” said Williams of Broderick Roadhouse. “Slowly but surely we are returning to what we were.”

WALNUT CREEK, CA – MARCH 30: Outdoor dining areas are seen along Locust Street in this drone view of downtown Walnut Creek, Calif. On Tuesday, March 30, 2021 (Jane Tyska / Bay Area News Group)


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