Au revoir to al fresco? LA mulls new outdoor dining ordinance

Patrons sit outdoors for dinner in Mel's Drive-In on Sunset Boulevard during the coronavirus pandemic in West Hollywood, Calif., on Nov. 24, 2020. Photo by Shutterstock.

LA’s Al Fresco outdoor dining program allowed restaurants to quickly put up outdoor dining spaces during the pandemic. No more of the excessive paperwork, fees, and months of approval that were usually needed. To some restaurants, it was a lifeline. 

“I absolutely feel like [Al Fresco] ... contributed to restaurants being able to stick around and thrive,” believes Mona Holmes, reporter for Eater LA. “Delivery is really costly when it comes to third-party apps. So dining-in is truthfully how [restaurants] thrive.”

And diners seemed to embrace it too, says Holmes. The evidence is clear when she drives or walks around the city. But now the city introduced a draft of a new ordinance that would bring back more of the pre-pandemic requirements for operating these outdoor spaces.

“I'm feeling like it's a little short-sighted here to suggest that these businesses, which had the worst time, in my opinion, of any industry during COVID, to tear down these structures and start over. Which is basically what the City of Los Angeles is asking them to do,” says Holmes.

Holmes says the proposed ordinance may require restaurants to remove these spaces, which might have cost in the thousands. Then, they have to apply for a conditional use permit that can cost up to $20,000, and wait up to a year for approval. In addition to zoning issues, other permits may be needed for serving alcohol outdoors, or to reduce parking lot capacity to make space for outdoor seating.

“It's a lot, and businesses have to navigate this path pretty much on their own,” explains Holmes, cautioning though that the ordinance hasn’t been approved. “There's a whole process right now, this is only the beginning.”

At a Department of City Planning public hearing last week, restaurant owners questioned why this proposed ordinance was making the process so hard. The city didn’t respond immediately, but Holmes says restaurant industry consultants don’t believe this is just a bureaucratic whim.

“[The city’s] whole goal is to make sure that the public is safe. And in their opinion, they believe that this is the way to do it.”