SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
You might not be able to eat Durango’s scenery, but there’s nothing to stop you from seasoning lunch with a heaping helping of clean, Colorado air.
Outdoor dining is here to stay.
“We’re eating out front, in the back, on the roof and on the floor,” said Bob Kunkel, special events and business coordinator for the Durango Central Business District, of the wide range of seating options offered to folks dining downtown.
Durango diners have plenty of choices in our “Don’t Fence Me In” community that boasts weather to support nearly year-round opportunities to eat outside.
Technology and design get the credit for expanding a restaurant’s capability to offer outdoor dining from early spring to late fall and beyond, Kunkel said. From pop-out windows to portable heaters, there’s a solution that addresses the growing demand for open-air dining.
In a city that reputedly has more restaurants per capita than any other in the United States, any place that can offer outdoor seating usually does.
Kunkel said increasing the amount of seating makes sense.
“More tables mean more turns. That means more revenue generation,” he said.
Market differentiation is an additional factor, Kunkel said. If a restaurant can give diners a choice between eating indoors or outside, it sees a competitive edge.
Last year’s sidewalk bistro dining experiment at four downtown Durango locations worked out well enough that Kunkel expects five or six coffee shops and restaurants to seek permits this year so they can take advantage of the expanded option. As long as the 24-inch tables and chairs aren’t obstructing the flow of sidewalk traffic or adversely affecting neighbors, the program works, he said.
Several downtown restaurants, including Seasons Rotisserie & Grill and Jean-Pierre Bakery, last summer used bistro tables as attractive lunch-hour invitations, table props for displaying menus, flowers or table settings that beckoned those strolling by to walk through their front doors.
Other restaurants respond to peak season table demand by taking advantage of whatever outdoor dining space might be available.
Andy Snow, owner of Nini’s Tacqueria, added his outdoor patio seating for 48 several seasons after purchasing the downtown restaurant 10 years ago. His climate-protected patio behind the restaurant has a New Orleans feel, his customers say. Outdoor brick flooring absorbs enough daytime heat that guests are comfortable late into the evening. Landscape lighting adds to the dining ambiance.
“Everyone who possibly can put in a patio does, because they realize Durango almost demands it,” Snow said.
Offering outdoor dining is more than just good business, said Paul Gelose, owner of The Palace Restaurant. For guests, it’s all about romance and making the connection between food, wine and the outdoors.
“We live in a great place. Where else you can be in a T-shirt and shorts, lingering like the Europeans do at 11 p.m. on a warm summer’snight?” Gelose asked. “It’s all about food, friends and the outdoors.”
“Plus, in Durango, there are no mosquitoes,” the East Coast native added.
“This time of year, we’re going about 80/20,” Gelose said, estimating that about 80 percent of diners choose to eat on the patio, with the remainder choosing traditional indoor seating. But if a guest asks to eat on the patio on a sunny winter afternoon, the Palace will make it happen, Gelose said.
Gelose said his guests appreciate the step back from the downtown hustle and bustle that his side patio dining area offers. That gives him a bit of a competitive edge, especially because diners can see and practically feel trains leaving the station next door.
“All the time I hear them say, ‘Holy smoke. This is so cool,’” Gelose said.
Nicole Killian, planner with City of Durango Community Development, said current code allows six months or fewer of seasonal, outdoor seating without adding to a restaurant’s parking requirement.
“Restaurants have the highest parking requirement standard. One parking space is required for every three seats,” Killian said.
If downtown restaurants can’t provide parking, they may pay an in-lieu parking fee or seek a parking variance.
Only one rooftop seating arrangement, at the Balcony Bar & Grill on the corner of Main Avenue and College Drive, has been grandfathered to be exempt from the parking requirement. Otherwise, all new rooftop seating must go to the city council for approval.
James Allred, co-owner of Cosmo Bar & Dining, said rooftop seating is popular, possibly because diners appreciate a good view of the mountains.
“One of every three diners asks to be seated on top,” he said.
The roof accommodates an additional 49 diners, but serving them can be a challenge.
“The labor dynamic changes every single day, given the 30 steps it takes to get up there, but it’s very much worth it. It’s an oasis. It’s green and lush and that’s tough to beat,” Allred said.
His seasonal rooftop garden features snapdragons, dianthus and cosmos, plus culinary herbs and tomatoes.
The rooftop dining area, which opened in 2009, proved so popular with guests that owners have asked the city to expand its permit so rooftop dining can be offered year-round.
Some might argue al fresco dining is too unpredictable, even with Durango’s temperate climate, but at least one downtown merchant disagrees.
“We are hikers, bikers, boaters (and) hunters,” said Susan Davies, owner of Graden Mercantile on Main Avenue. “Might as well eat outside, too.”