Cafe concern?

Despite accidents, sidewalk diners are unworried about runaway vehicles

May 31, 2007|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,SUN REPORTER

The hazards of restaurant dining are usually fairly benign: an overdone steak, a bad server.

And sidewalk cafes? The worst problem might have been traffic fumes. Until recently, when outdoor diners found themselves in the paths of wayward drivers.

On Tuesday night, a man who reportedly tried to park a Honda Accord jumped the curb and careered through a crowd at a Federal Hill eatery, sending tables and chairs flying and three customers to the hospital.

Last week, an SUV struck a woman sitting outside a Starbucks in Owings Mills, causing critical injuries.

So popular is outside dining on warm and sunny days that many area restaurants say that extended waits for outdoor seating are the norm. Not just in Baltimore, but across the country, restaurant analysts say, diners have become increasingly hungry for curbside or rooftop seating. And a few accidents are unlikely to stop diners from filling the sidewalks outside restaurants.

"Especially in an increasingly 24-hour work environment, the opportunity to spend some time outside and fit in a meal is very exciting," said Licia Spinelli, vice president of marketing and special events at the Maryland Restaurant Association. "There are always additional risks when you're close to traffic, but it definitely comes across as unfortunate accidents, not the next big scare. I wouldn't be afraid to eat outside."

Alan Morstein, owner of Regi's American Bistro in the 1000 block of Light St., where three 20-something patrons suffered minor injuries Tuesday and were later treated at local hospitals, said he plans to approach city officials about installing a concrete barrier to avoid another crash.

"I'm going to try to have the city do it, but if they don't want to do it, I'm going to do it on my own," Morstein said. (A city zoning official said getting permission would be unlikely.)

"I'm going to do whatever possible to make it safe for my diners outside," Morstein said. "Some sort of concrete barriers, but not like a jersey barrier, something that is tasteful. I don't want to take away from the charm of Federal Hill."

Morstein said it was lucky that no one was killed in the 7:30 p.m. incident, which the driver attributed to his brakes failing.

"It was like an explosion, and the scene outside was with people screaming and bodies lying around," Morstein said. "There was a pocketbook underneath the car, which showed how fortunate [one woman] was."

Yesterday, Morstein dispatched workers to repair the steel poles that were bent in the crash, ensuring that his patrons could enjoy filet mignon and Thai salads while taking in the streetscape. The poles, which supported the restaurant's awning and covered the 22-person outside seating area, probably prevented the car from doing more damage, he said.

Morstein said patrons clamor to eat outside.

"I can walk into the dining room and it's 50 percent full, but I've got a 45-minute wait for outside [seating]. And it's nice inside with the air conditioning," he said. "It's like when the Titanic hit the iceberg. The band kept playing. The show must go on. We'll be serving dinner outside tonight."

Mary Ellen Earley-Massi, manager at Tapas Teatro on busy North Charles Street, said the 14 tables outside are rarely empty when the weather is pleasant.

"They absolutely love it," Earley-Massi said. "It's a summer evening. You can sit outside. Why wouldn't you want to sit outside in the summertime? People have a drink at the bar and wait so they can sit outside. So, it's definitely a draw."

About 75 eating establishments in Baltimore hold permits for outdoor seating, said David Tanner, executive director of the city's Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals. At a zoning board meeting on the day of the Federal Hill accident, three restaurants, two on South Broadway and one off Dundalk Avenue, requested permits, Tanner said.

For a restaurant to offer outdoor seating, it typically has to obtain a conditional use permit from the city, which requires a public hearing before the zoning board. Rarely are they denied, Tanner said.

"The main concerns have been adequate space for pedestrian traffic," Tanner said. "We've had few accidents like [Tuesday's]. I don't know of any in the past that were as serious as that one. Usually, there's a buffer with cars parked at the curb."

At Regi's, for example, which received permission for outdoor seating in 1995, the seating cannot extend beyond an 8-foot by 29-foot area, Tanner said, which is half the width of the 16-foot sidewalk.

In Baltimore County, restaurant patrons didn't seem bothered by cars.

Respiratory therapist Hisham Humsy, 43, sitting under an umbrella outside Kabob Hut in Towson, said he didn't worry as he people-watched and chatted with an acquaintance. He said only one thing troubles him about eating outside - cigarette smoke.

"That's when I'd rather be inside," he said.

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