Seasonal outside dining boosts morale and builds appetites

Summit Common Council unanimously voted to close Maple Street in both directions from Springfield Avenue to the nearest alleyways to allow for seasonal outdoor dining. The road will be closed through Wednesday, November 30. Pictured are people dining in a previous year.

SUMMIT, NJ — Warmer weather has again heralded in an adaptation to the pandemic lockdown that shut Summit restaurants two years ago. From now until late November, Maple Street, between Union Place and Springfield Avenue and then jumping across Springfield Avenue for a short distance, will be closed to traffic and will become an alfresco haven.

Summit Mayor Nora Radest, in an interview on Maple Street on Saturday, May 14, said that, during the pandemic, the state allowed the city to close down the street for outdoor dining. It was first considered to have only one side of the street closed, but the police advised against this for safety.

“With the restaurants closed, we put tables outside and the people loved it,” she said. “Now there is no state of emergency, and the city was able to close the street. The restaurants are doing well. You can’t get a table out here, and merchants say it’s been beneficial for them.”

According to the mayor, Summit Common Council and four restaurateurs were chiefly responsible for closing the street to motor vehicles and opening it to tables and chairs.

Dylan Baker, the owner of BarBacoa and Summit House Restaurant, said he and three other restaurant owners brought the idea to the mayor and council. He mentioned Chip Grabowski of Roots Steakhouse, Mentor Bitici of Fiorino Ristorante and Brian Toglia of Fin Rawbar as part of the plan.

“We created a Maple Street alliance,” he said goodnaturedly, “a little restaurant group.”

And even though his restaurants fill up, Baker said people still like to dine outside.

“There are a lot of people who don’t want to dine inside,” he said. “And it’s just nice to have this option. I hear a lot of people saying they feel like they’re in Europe.”

And because of the outdoor dining, he has increased his service staff by four.

John Tirch, the director of operations for the Harvest Restaurant Group, which operated Roots Steakhouse, speaking at the steakhouse, said opening the street to dining kept the steakhouse alive during the pandemic shutdown.

“It gave us the opportunity to work and for people to gather,” he said. “People from Brooklyn with a baby carriage came up to us and asked, does this happen all the time? Who wouldn’t want to be part of a community with vibrant alfresco dining? Getting together outdoors helped us get back to normal.”

Bitici, interviewed at Fiorino, said Maple Street was now definitely an attraction for the city, and he thought it would bring in customers living further away.

“We’ve never had outdoor dining,” he said motioning toward a window, “because they made the tree planters (on the sidewalk) so big. We didn’t have room for outdoor dining. But I never expected it to be what it is. It’s unbelievable.”

He said because of Maple Street dining, he has increased his staff by 14.

“Dylan brought up the street dining,” he said. “He took the bull by the horns. He was the lobbyist.”

Fiorino and Fin are on opposite sides of the street. Bitici said since Fin does not have a liquor license, his restaurant will accommodate them.

Toglia, interviewed at Fin, credited the alfresco experience with saving his business during the pandemic.

“We were being floated by takeout orders, but it wasn’t enough,” he said. “I didn’t pay myself for a half a year. It was crazy. COVID-19 sucked the life and color out of everything. When we got the OK (for street dining), it brought the morale of the town up. Seeing people outside raised the morale during a time when people desperately needed it.”

Photo Courtesy of Amy Cairns

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