Post lockdowns, Orange County restaurants transform outdoor dining into something more permanent

One of the large outside dining areas, Cha Cha's Latin Kitchen, in Brea at the end of March 2022.
(Raul Roa)
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It has been over two years since restaurants in Orange County were forced to create outdoor dining spaces in order to survive.

Many restaurant owners set up makeshift seating in parking lots and on sidewalks, with vinyl tents and plants to make the space more welcoming. Now, those that have weathered the storm are investing in outdoor spaces permanently, and the transformation is real.

Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen in Brea reopened its doors on March 30 with a renovated patio after being closed for six weeks of construction. The eatery offered patio dining before the pandemic and continued to do so after it began.

“We have a city that is very supportive, we have a landlord that was very supportive and most importantly we have very loyal Cha Cha’s guests,” said Peter Serantoni, co-owner at Cha Cha’s. “We were able to expand to outside seating that almost matched out total seating on the inside.”

Cha Cha’s has been operating out of the Brea location for 13 years, and Serantoni said the normal wear and tear of a high-volume restaurant was starting to show. Then an opportunity to take over the retail space next door presented itself, adding 2,000 square feet to the restaurant.

The bar inside Cha Cha's Latin Kitchen, in Brea.
(Raul Roa)

“Our prior layout only allowed for a very small bar, only six seats,” said Serantoni. “So we thought this would be an excellent opportunity to not only remodel our existing space but also expand and create a nicer, more welcoming lounge area.”

The project was a part of the location’s two-part makeover that features a complete interior and exterior renovation and expansion. The restaurant has also added a private dining room for tequila and mezcal tastings.

The new space, Cha Cha’s Cantina, is a lounge area located on the left side of the building that accommodates up to 75 seats. Besides six large TVs for sports viewing, the cantina has its own separate open-air patio facing Birch Street, adding to existing outdoor seating.

The Cha Cha's margarita, at Cha Cha's Latin Kitchen in Brea.
(Raul Roa)

“The cantina patio will be very much an al fresco situation,” said Serantoni.

On the other side of the restaurant, the original patio has reopened fully covered, heated and expanded with floor-to-ceiling retractable windows.

“It used to be a little sliver where you could only fit a couple tables for two,” said Serantoni. “Now you can fit four tables, side by side. The space more than doubled.”

One of the large outdoor dining areas at Cha Cha's Latin Kitchen.
(Raul Roa)

Serantoni said overall, guests are enjoying the new space.

“Trying to coordinate a remodel of this magnitude in that period of time turned out to be quite a challenge,” Serantoni said, “but we are very pleased with how it turned out. It is still Cha Cha’s at the core but with a new fresh look.”

The Craft House in Dana Point. The restaurant is one of the original parking lot patios that opened during the pandemic.
Craft House in Dana Point is one of the original parking lot patios that opened during the pandemic. Craft House is also among the Orange County restaurants that have undergone renovations and permanent expansions of patios and outdoor dining areas, like Cha Cha’s in Brea and the Blind Pig in Yorba Linda.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

On the coast, Craft House in Dana Point has also been hard at work expanding.

The busy new American eatery had virtually no downtime between the first shutdown and pivoting to takeout.

“We shut down March 17, and then we were doing takeout on March 18,” said Blake Mellgren, Craft House owner and executive chef. “So we never really missed a day.”

Craft House was also among the first parking lot patios during COVID-19.

“We laid down astro turf, pulled everything from inside outside and put the planter boxes in to try to build a cocktail lounge vibe on one side and dining on the other side.”

Craft House’s outdoor setup was featured in the New York Times, and when state and county officials allowed restaurants to return to indoor dining, Mellgren said he realized there was potential for growth.

“Ninety to 100 seats is doable,” said Mellgren. “Two hundred is a lot better. It kind of showed me how much more we could put out.”

The outdoor patio dining room at the Craft House which debuted in Dana Point in April.
The outdoor patio dining room at the Craft House, which debuted in Dana Point this month.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Mellgren said he also felt his clientele tiring of the makeshift outdoor space, especially during colder months. So he decided to build a more sturdy space using a patio-enclosure supplier.

“The company is Palmiye, so they prefab it all in Turkey and then ship it here, and it is pretty much an erector set after that,” said Mellgren.

Bartender Nate Murguia serves a seasonal margarita and a Craft House old fashioned at the Craft House in Dana Point.
Bartender Nate Murguia serves a seasonal margarita and a Craft House old fashioned at the Craft House in Dana Point.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

In April, Craft House debuted a new expansion into part of what used to be the parking lot. Valet parking service has been added because some spaces were eliminated.

The all-new covered patio is heated and weatherproofed and provides a panoramic view of Pacific Coast Highway and the Dana Point Lantern District Gateway for up to 90 guests.

The outdoor dining and takeout space of the Roma D' Italia restaurant in Old Town Tustin.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

At Roma D’ Italia in Old Town Tustin, a white outdoor tent has occupied the front parking lot since the start of the pandemic. While other businesses in Old Town without front real estate put tables directly on the sidewalk, Roma was in the unique position of being able to create a space that feels like an extension of the dining room.

“The city had a program where you could start putting tables outside, and there was a really easy permitting process,” said Alfio Rossetti, who handles operations at Roma D’ Italia. “The city of Tustin in particular has been very good about extending the deadline for when that is going to end.”

The temporary outdoor area has supplemented the restaurant’s existing permanent patio where a table was set up for to-go orders, which has always been a strong part of Roma’s business model and became even more so during the pandemic.

The Roma special pizza at Roma D' Italia in Old Town Tustin.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Rossetti and his aunt and Roma D’ Italia owner, Teresa Corea-Golka, recently invested in that permanent patio by adding a red outdoor covering that matches the red checkered tablecloth aesthetic of the Italian restaurant.

“It is steel, and there are awnings on the top and some roll-down awnings on the side to protect for shade because we are west facing,” said Rossetti. “We are also going to mount overhead heaters and additional lighting.”

Rossetti said improvement plans for the patio were in the works before the pandemic hit.

“It took us a little while for us it to get through the city, and then once the pandemic started, our focus really switched, so we tabled the plans,” said Rossetti.

The Roma D' Italia marquee sign in Old Town Tustin.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Roma D’ Italia has served Orange County for more than 60 years, and the original restaurant had only about 34 seats. While the offerings remain traditional Italian comfort food, the menu and the space have expanded.

“Over time the business grew … physically and customer-wise,” said Rossetti. “We did a remodel 10 years ago, and the customers loved it. I hope they like the patio as much as they liked that remodel.”

Farmhouse at Roger's Gardens' new outdoor event space.
(John Dole)

Like Roma D’ Italia, Farmhouse at Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar was in a unique position during the pandemic.

“The whole restaurant is outside,” said Farmhouse Chef Rich Mead. “We originally had quite a few more seats than we have right now. At one point we had 170 to 180 seats. During COVID we spread everything out and had about 100 seats. We only have 140 now, including the bar.”

The farm-to-table-focused restaurant, which is located on Roger’s Gardens’ 7-acre home-and-garden center, added planters and created more space, which Mead said makes for a nicer ambience.

While the dining environment is enchanting, the kitchen is small, and taking on special events and parties in addition to the dining room can be challenging.

“We will do parties inside the restaurant, but our kitchen is not very big,” said Mead. “It really stresses out the rest of the dining room.”

In order to accommodate more diners, the Farmhouse team installed a permanent wood structure near the restaurant’s entrance with a white vinyl covering and string lights, creating a space that can seat up to 40 guests. And to alleviate the stress on the kitchen, an outdoor grill station is responsible for all the food for events in the new space.

Chef Rich Mead of Farmhouse.
Chef Rich Mead of Farmhouse.
(John Dole)

“We can do a party, and by doing it on the grill, I can create a menu that doesn’t tax the kitchen,” said Mead.

Mead hopes to eventually put together dinners once a month, with different purveyors, farmers and winemakers for 30 guests.

The menu for the outdoor space can also be customized, a detail Mead is most excited about.

“Part of this idea is for us, the cooks and bartenders, to be able to do things for fun,” said Mead. “After the last two years, trying to create things that are fun and interesting is a big part of it.”

Now that Cha Cha’s is settling into its new digs, Serantoni said he is hoping to introduce new menu items.

Aguachile with Ahi tuna at Cha Cha's Latin Kitchen in Brea.
(Raul Roa)

“We are going to introduce a new bar menu with a lot of small plates,” Serantoni said, “and we are going to introduce new cocktails. That is the first step, and then we will see where we go from there.”

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