LA’s outdoor dining update may keep the patios open


The City of LA’s outdoor dining program looks unchanged for customers seated in the private driveway outside Anajak Thai in Sherman Oaks since the pandemic lockdowns. Restaurants are asking the city to keep the program flexible as it becomes permanent. Photo courtesy of Anajak Thai/Photo by Carter Hiyama.

Eating al fresco has always been great in Southern California, and during the pandemic it became a lifeline for diners and businesses. Now the City of Los Angeles wants to make permanent a pandemic-era program called L.A. Al Fresco that allowed restaurants to use sidewalks and parking spaces for dining. The program has been wildly popular in the past few years, with over 2,500 restaurants participating. 

So can restaurants just keep doing what they’ve been doing?

Sadly, no. The city wants to make sure restaurants are operating safely, and it says a return to a more formal process is needed. From the beginning, the city made it clear it was only a temporary lifeline for businesses. 

Restaurant staffers who spoke with KCRW would like to see the city retain most of the flexibility of the pandemic program. 

“It showed the city and county that for the most part, knocking out those barriers was a huge bonus to everyone,” says Darrell Preston, the operations manager at The Whaler in Venice and Baja Cantina in Marina Del Rey. In Venice, they were able to convert 10 metered parking spaces into over 30 seats, which helped them keep around 300 employees on the payroll (down from about 350 before the pandemic). 

“The bureaucracy in such a big program starts to creep back in and make things very complex when they don't need to be,” says Preston.

How are the rules different for permanent outdoor dining?

The City Planning Department’s first draft of the rules faced public outcry that it was too restrictive and required restaurants to pay expensive new permits for existing patios. The second draft, released April 7, has looser rules around alcohol permits, application fees, and using parking for dining. For instance, the planning department waived a $20,000 permit fee; got rid of a pricey conditional use permit requirement; and removed restrictions that aimed to preserve some parking at restaurants. 

Eddie Navarratte, the executive director of the Independent Hospitality Coalition, says there are still things missing that the group would like to see, but they are satisfied with the new ordinance. “I think that it took a lot of humility, from city planning, to allow themselves to make these changes and come up with something that was for the people and not necessarily for bureaucracy,” says Navarratte.

What does the hospitality industry still want changed?

The ordinance does not allow for music to be played in these outdoor spaces, which restaurant owners say is especially important if the establishment is in a noisy place like Downtown LA. 

Restaurants are also worried about the rest of the city bureaucracy. While the planning department revises their rules, the bureaus of engineering and building and safety, and the Fire Marshal and Department of Transportation have not yet released information on how they will approach a permanent Al Fresco program. 

This worries Justin Pichetrungsi, the chef and owner of Anajak Thai in Sherman Oaks, which has tables on public and private property around the restaurant, including a private driveway. That driveway has become part of the vibe of the place and it’s where his popular Thai Taco Tuesdays started, just outside the back kitchen door. It’s unclear whether he can continue to use this space under the new rules.

Pichetrungsi says his outdoor dining areas allowed him to double seating and hire more staff. He says he’s come to depend on this setup. “If we don't have al fresco anymore, the fear is that a lot of people could lose their jobs,” says Pichetrungsi.

And while city planning has waived their permitting fee, Navarrette, who does design and consulting work for the hospitality industry, says the permit and compliance process for building and safety can cost upwards of $40,000. That includes the cost of permits, an architect to draw professional blueprints, and contractor fees for bringing the space up to code.

Brittney Valles, the owner and operator of Gogo’s Tacos in Rampart Village and Guerilla Tacos in Downtown LA, says she is concerned that a return to a more complicated process will push smaller mom-and-pop businesses like hers out of the program because they can’t afford to hire expeditors to help them navigate the permit process. 

“Either the city needs to make things easier to understand and to execute, very similarly to the original Al Fresco program, or they need to offer us the resources on their dollar to understand their complicated system,” says Valles.

When will the rules be final?

The City Planning Department is holding its next public hearing on the draft ordinance on April 27. Once it makes its final recommendation, the proposal will move through several committees, then the City Council, and finally the mayor’s desk. This process could take months. Navarrette says this slow timeline means he’s seeing restaurants back off on making needed improvements on their patios because of the uncertainty. 

“Unfortunately, we can't put a lot of investment in something that we might need to tear down later,” says Navarratte. “We are really just hoping that things are gonna work out.”

Meanwhile, California State Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel of Woodland Hills proposed a bill that would supersede all of LA’s rules. Assembly Bill 1217 would help restaurants avoid time-consuming and costly red tape by keeping pandemic-era rules in place through January 1, 2026.

“Folks feel like they're walking uphill when it comes to dealing with all these bureaucratic regulations,” says Gabriel. “And it shouldn't be that way. I think we need to do better by our small businesses.” 

A previous version of the story mischaracterized State Assembly Bill 1217. It offers temporary relief through January 1, 2026. We regret the error.