By Donald Wittkowski
What cities come to mind for the best outdoor dining – Paris, San Francisco, Rome, Montreal, perhaps?
Hoping to add some culinary coolness of its own, Sea Isle City introduced al fresco dining in 2008 to attract more restaurant customers and create a more upscale ambiance in the downtown district.
Although many in town initially greeted the idea with skepticism and suspicion, especially since it was paired with drinking outdoors, the experiment with sidewalk dining is considered a great success nine years later.
With the peak summer tourism season approaching, city officials are going to take another look to see if anything can be done to make the sidewalk cafe-style dining experience even better for prime-time vacation weather.
Councilman John Divney, who is leading the effort, said he is open to suggestions. He plans to team up with Councilwoman Mary Tighe to study the issue, including sitting down with restaurant owners to get their opinions.
“We have success in hand with outdoor dining, no doubt about it. I haven’t heard any negative comments. But is there anything we can do to enhance it, to make it even more attractive?” Divney said in an interview Wednesday.
Divney first brought up the topic during Tuesday’s City Council meeting. His fellow Council members agreed that sidewalk dining has been a big hit with the public and the restaurants.
One local restaurant owner, Mike Monichetti, of Mike’s Seafood, was dead set against outdoor dining when it was first conceived. Like other opponents, Monichetti feared it would become a nuisance because diners are also allowed to drink alcoholic beverages while enjoying their outdoor meals.
However, Monichetti acknowledged during Tuesday’s Council meeting that he was “dead wrong” to oppose outdoor dining.
“It enhances Sea Isle City. It enhances restaurants in Sea Isle City,” he said.
Monichetti noted that customers at his Park Road seafood restaurant have urged him to place tables outside for open-air dining. So far, he has no plans to do it.
Divney believes many local residents originally were opposed to sidewalk dining because they thought it would add to Sea Isle’s former reputation “as a bar town.” But just the opposite has occurred, he said.
“Sidewalk dining has taken away that image,” he said. “It makes the town feel nicer and warmer and more comfortable.”
Sea Isle spokeswoman Katherine Custer explained that outdoor dining is yet another way to appeal to the summer crowds at the Jersey Shore.
“The idea of sidewalk dining is to enhance people’s experience. People at the shore like to be outside,” she said.