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Outdoor dining has become a new lifeline for struggling restaurants. Here’s how they’re making it work

The outdoor dining scene at Yakitoriya in Los Angeles.
Toshi Sakamaki, chef and owner of Yakitoriya, prepares yakitori outdoors for customers sitting nearby.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)
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At 6 p.m. on a recent Friday, as the sun was sinking over Sawtelle Boulevard in West L.A., chef and restaurant owner Toshi Sakamaki wheeled his prized yakitori grill onto the sidewalk in front of his 23-year-old Japanese restaurant, Yakitoriya.

A cluster of tables, arranged six feet apart and sectioned off from the street by ad hoc plastic dividers, sat a few feet from the grill. Reservations for the night were already booked, Sakamaki said from behind his mask. Plumes of the poultry-scented smoke filled the air as the chef flipped skewers of thigh and liver over glowing charcoal, intermittently popping out from behind the grill to deliver perfectly charred chicken parts to diners.

Chef Toshi Sakamaki prepares yakitori outdoors
Chef and restaurant owner Toshi Sakamaki prepares yakitori outdoors, in front of his Sawtelle Boulevard restaurant, Yakitoriya.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Since July 1 — when Gov. Gavin Newsom once again shut down indoor dining at restaurants in L.A. County — outdoor dining has become a crucial lifeline for restaurants as they scramble to adjust to new rules and regulations that allow them to create ad hoc seating areas in parking lots, alleys, sidewalks and city streets.

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“We’re expecting outdoor dining to be the new reality for the rest of the year,” said Hans Röckenwagner, the veteran Westside restaurateur who, with Josiah Citrin (Mélisse, Charcoal), created Dear John’s, a retro American steakhouse in Culver City.

In early June, Röckenwagner spent four days in 100-degree heat constructing an outdoor patio in the Dear John’s parking lot, rolling out a layer of synthetic turf “carpeting,” nailing wooden boards together to form a perimeter wall, stringing rows of patio lights overhead and surveying six feet between tables with a tape measure.

With the new outdoor tables in place, Dear John’s is able to seat nearly as many diners as it did in its indoor dining room, Röckenwagner said. But even though he and wife Patti have been able to hire back the majority of their staff, business remains unsteady.

“It’s nearly impossible to anticipate demand from day to day,” Patti Röckenwagner said. “Most diners want to eat earlier in the evening, and those that might have gone out three or four times a week are now going out once.”

Across the city, many other L.A. favorites have taken the same tack: Spago expanded into its Canon Drive cul-de-sac to add 125 seats, Osteria Mozza transformed a former staff parking area into “Piazza Mozza,” downtown’s Redbird set up multiple dining courtyards at St. Vibiana Cathedral, and establishments such as Lawry’s and Dan Tana’s are launching al fresco arrangements for the first time in their storied histories.

But depending on available space and resources, outdoor dining is not a boon for every business. Though the Röckenwagners were able to build their patio on a shoestring budget, restaurants have been spending as much as $30,000 on their ambitious new outdoor spaces, a significant investment for businesses that are already feeling squeezed.

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At Fishing With Dynamite in Manhattan Beach, tables now spill over into the street along Manhattan Avenue, thanks to an ordinance by local officials that allowed restaurants to expand in parking spaces along the beach city’s main drag, at least until September.

The new outdoor space — traffic barricades covered in burlap, a row of lush green-filled planters, tables covered by overhanging umbrellas — seats about 50 and took about a week to construct.

A busser at Fishing With Dynamite who declined to give his name said that working outdoors felt safer than the brief period when the restaurant was open for indoor dining but that challenges remained.

“It’s harder to work in a mask and face shield, but it makes me feel better being in contact with people [who are] not wearing masks,” he said. “People are taking things a little more serious now in terms of how they deal with us. It was pretty rough when we first opened when we had customers walking around the restaurant without masks.”

Customers dine outside on a patio with umbrellas as a server walks by wearing a mask.
Diners at Fishing with Dynamite on July 17 in Manhattan Beach. With the new restrictions imposed on restaurants due to COVID-19, many restaurants, including Fishing with Dynamite, have moved their operations outdoors in an effort to stay afloat.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Hatchet Hall, one of the first restaurants in Culver City to gain local approval for its parking patio, chose to eliminate table service, encouraging diners to order at a bar counter and choose their own table on a sprawling outdoor space enhanced with painted asphalt, umbrellas and foliage.

Chef Brian Dunsmoor has begun offering Southern-style shrimp boils on weekends, with the kitchen staff cooking seafood and sausage in pots outside and serving them on large sheet pans for $24.

Other restaurants have taken a different approach to dealing with limited outdoor space, including 3-month-old Lady Byrd in Echo Park, a daytime cafe that has gone viral online for its individual greenhouses, which serve as physical-distancing pods for tables of up to six.

And while some see outdoor dining as a temporary Band-Aid until dine-in service resumes, other restaurant owners are coming to terms with the idea that their expensive dining rooms likely will sit empty for the foreseeable future.

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“If you spent $1 million to build your restaurant, and you’re not able to use the space you paid for, that’s very scary,” Röckenwagner said. “Ultimately you can [only] do so much to re-create the feeling of dining inside a restaurant.

“Our industry has always been one of survival,” he added. “As long as we can serve guests safely, we’ll find a way to do it, even if the future is uncertain.”