Someone visiting downtown St. John's this summer for the first time in a few years might rub their eyes in disbelief at the number of patios that have popped up.
The number of outdoor dining spaces in the city have ballooned, nearly tripling from 30 patios last year — a shocking number at the time — to a total of about 80 this year, dotting the city with an unprecedented number of al fresco options.
The city's pedestrian mall, a pandemic-inspired push to bring money to floundering downtown businesses, helped spark the trend last year.
When St. John's city council converted the majority of Water Street into a traffic-free pedestrian zone from July to early September, restaurants snagged their opportunity, constructing extended spaces to beckon hungry visitors for a drink or a meal while adhering to physical distancing rules.
The patio craze even spread beyond the car-free area, as competitors raced to keep up with demand.
Touton Lane, a small cafe on Duckworth Street, took a chance on its own open-air seating area last summer to resounding success, according to co-owner Josh Eddy.
Eddy says it's still hard to say whether the costs and payoffs of his patio are balanced — even a small deck can set an owner back thousands of dollars in materials — but he nodded to the option as a growing expectation among St. John's diners.
"People love to be able to sit outside, people watch and have somewhere to take the food," he said. "We don't have a whole lot of space inside where we currently are, so it's nice to give an option for people."
The rapid downtown transformation is more than just a pandemic fad, suggests Coun. Debbie Hanlon.
"Every year, I think, it will grow and get more and more beautiful and more enhanced," she said, "but I see it as a permanent structure within the city."
The patios, Hanlon said, attract visitors to the downtown area.
"Businesses are excited about it. A lot of people … have invested heavily into their decks this year,."
Raising the bar?
Boca Tapas Bar and Cojones, located right next to each other on Water Street, upped their offerings this year, installing retractable awnings and side wind panels to protect customers from unpredictable North Atlantic weather.
In a city that can see single digits in July, the added precautions have paid off, says Derek Locke, the director of both businesses.
"We've had volumes similar to what we did at the last pedestrian mall already in May and June," said Locke.
On Thursday, he said, "We were full until 11 o'clock, simply because we could close our roof, put up the sides and stop the wind and turn on the heaters. So, it's a game changer for us."
For Touton Lane, the cost of installing a roof is too much at the moment. Eddy hopes to gradually expand his deck in the coming years and believes it's a worthwhile long-term investment, as locals acclimatize to the city's blossoming patio culture.
"Even if it's a bit cooler, we find people are sitting out there anyway, which is a bit surprising," he said.
Locke agrees designing the patio protections "has not been an easy feat" because of regulations that required an engineer and fire safety specialists.
But he harbours no regrets about the price tag.
"It's really expensive not to do it," he said. "Getting May and October is all about having a patio that can withstand the trials and tribulations of St. John's weather."
Boca and Cojones' patios will close on Oct. 31, the city-imposed end date of patio season.
Locke said he'd like an extension of the patio season through Christmas, pointing out that the city doesn't see much snowfall before January in most years.