What was once a survival method for many Denver restaurants desperate to hold on to customers during the COVID pandemic has become a cultural phenomenon.
"It's very civilized, very casual. It's very relaxed, and I love the atmosphere of it," said Beth Gruitch, the co-owner of Rioja Restaurant on the now closed-to-traffic Larimer Square. "This is now a place to come hang out."
The restaurant, like most in Denver during the pandemic, struggled mightily to survive. The typically high-end menu had to be re-imagined in order to serve take-out and delivery while customers could no longer eat inside.
"None of us knew it was gonna happen. And everything was changing literally by the minute," Gruitch said. "We had to act fast."
When outdoor dining became available, the restaurant responded quickly by purchasing canvas tents and patio furniture. But even that was not enough to maintain their revenues.
"It was challenging, we had to learn a lot," Gruitch explained. "We were faced with wondering how to pay our rent."
Even now, as restrictions are lifted, the challenges continue. Labor shortages paired with price increases have left restaurant owners struggling.
"When things go up, 36% you absolutely cannot disregard that. It affects your whole operation," said Gruitch. "The hits kind of keep coming."
She says outdoor dining may be a way to heal some of the damage. Restaurants are now allowed to keep their outdoor dining through October 2022.
"We're, we're people pleasers, and we want to make the dining experience exceptional."
The impacts of outdoor dining may be more widespread than just economic. Kevin Krizek, a professor of environmental design at CU Boulder, says city leaders should try to keep many of the spaces now designated for tables and chairs.
"For almost 100 years, most cities in most parts of the country, certainly not all have really been designed around automobiles," Krizek explained. "This was not really a possibility that was even in the minds of peoples before COVID."