Rediscovering Simple Joy Of Eating Out - Outdoors, That Is

August 29, 2009|By JACQUES KELLY

It's taken Baltimore a long time to take outdoor table service at restaurants and bars seriously. We may be late to buy into a trend, but now it seems to be spreading like Formstone.

I tend to equate the outdoor tables with an increase in outdoor presence in general. It's been a pleasant summer, with few prolonged patches of heat, and everyone seems to be out walking, biking or just taking in the sights of Baltimore.

I watch grocery shoppers with their bags hoof it to the store. I see mothers and fathers with baby strollers - many the size of an infant SUV. I just see people walking around in unexpected places. I'm not just thinking about the Inner Harbor, which is always full of pedestrians. The new wave of conversions of old office buildings into boutique hotels has helped boost foot traffic in the older parts of downtown, too.

I also see the end to the fear that kept people locked indoors during the 1990s. I don't know what caused it - and my many friends among cabdrivers confirmed this impression - but Baltimoreans grew terrified by crime during that period. They stayed inside. They darted from front door to car. The streets were eerie. They were empty.

It's been a slow re-emergence for people to come outside and enjoy the city. I credit the outdoor dining trend with sending a subliminal message that it's OK to venture out as the sun sets.

At first I thought the outdoor table thing was just a ploy to boost restaurant revenue by increasing seating capacity. But soon it became fun to see what people were eating. You could be a sort of restaurant critic without spending any money or having to write a review.

Not everyone took to the idea of outside seating. In the Charles Village area where I live, neighbors complained about the implications of such a trend and protested before city licensing agencies. Some extremists remain anti-pavement people and badger city enforcement types about outdoor eating laws.

I realize that people take their civics and rights as neighborhood dwellers seriously, but what is so awful about sociable people sitting outside on a summer night with a glass of beer and a hamburger?

I am a firm believer in the drawing power of food. Want friends? Just set a very good table. They will come.

Safe streets? The best police force is a street filled with unafraid people, out and about, doing what they should be doing. I've watched the table mania spread along upper St. Paul Street not far from where I live. As the chairs went out, they seemed to beckon and attract more pedestrians. All of a sudden, what had been a sleepy little commercial strip had become a destination, a place people wanted to be. Then it seemed like a such good idea and a whole block of shops went in - and the neighborhood, on certain nights, has the feel of a busy boardwalk. It's great for people-watching, too.

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