Tablecloths whipping in the wind. Waiters waltzing with trays of sparkling beverages balanced in the air. Small chic dogs tucked near hefty handbags and high heals. ‘Gents loosening their ties and pushing their chairs back for one more round. Are you in a sidewalk cafe in Paris’ Monteparnasse or overlooking Barcelona’s Las Ramblas? No, you’ve landed graciously on 8th Street, and in thanksgiving, let’s break out the bubbly to celebrate the city’s first “Sidewalk Cafe Month.”
Mayor Vincent Gray toured our little bastion of European cafe life on Monday afternoon to ring in the month of ‘manger en plien’ air that marks the 50th anniversary of sidewalk eating in DC. He stopped by Belga Cafe and Matchbox. Were I among the small business development wonks trailing the entourage, I might have also encouraged visits to the longstanding neighborhood patriarchs who first put the tables out at Banana Cafe and Las Placitas.The Post tells us that when local restauranteurs sought to extended their table space into the open air, civic worrywarts raised concern about pedestrians, having to traverse tables at every corner, would find their lives at risk, and firefighters could hardly be expected to wrangle their hoses through patio furniture. The whole idea, according to those who fought it, was filled with ‘potential sources of disorder.” Who knows how we’ve ever survived the “windblown foreign matter” that surely polluted our small plates, but a sidewalk seating permit certainly seems to be the ticket to today’s restaurant success.
Flanked by officials from the departments of transportation, planning, and small and local business developments, as well as DC Main Streets and Barracks Row Main Street, Gray chose the Chesapeake Room to make his proclamation. Yes, an odd location, that being a lovely and expansive porch there on the corner — but as owner Xavier Cervera has made the most of outside space at Lola’s and Molly Malone’s and Senart’s, it was the sensible choice. If the honeydew gazpacho was on the menu at the lemonade reception following the press event, it was indeed a gracious decision.
I’ll gladly celebrate the month; local cafe dinners and lunches have been some of the best I’ve enjoyed on the Hill. When our little one was brand new, we terrified parents took her to Monmartre and Toscana Cafe to feel human and air ourselves out — thrilled to have outdoor seats in case we had ‘an incident.’ I am especially grateful to the hosts who have set up sidewalk space in spaces with little to compare to the European oases that lead the way. My hat goes off to the chefs and owners at Mi Vicinidad and the Argonaut; along with generous and strong drinks, amazing fried chicken and juicy carne asada you might indeed get a whiff of exhaust with your tasty dinner, but for cafes with aplomb and on the street hutzpa, go no further.
Where else might Mr. Gray have stopped? Or what spots would we rather keep to ourselves — here, amongst friends?