Denver restaurants scramble to expand outdoor dining

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DENVER (KDVR) — With less than 48 hours’ notice, Denver restaurant owners are working around the clock to make sure they’re ready to open their doors to customers Wednesday. But with an emphasis on outdoor dining, the bigger race is applying for and preparing space to expand seating outside.

“Astroturf with standup umbrellas and 10-by-10 tents,” said Blake Street Tavern owner Chris Fusilier as he stood over his parking lot that flanks the restaurant, describing his vision for the space.

Fusilier is one of 384 business owners that have applied for a variance to expand outdoor dining in Denver through the temporary outdoor expansions process.

Blake Street Tavern can hold up to 900 people, between separate rooms that wind through the building, but is capped at 50 people dining in under current state guidelines. Fusilier has set up his patio out back to hold 45 people, and hopes to get room for 70 more in the parking lot area he’s applying to expand. Under state guidelines, there is no cap for outdoor dinning. 

“Normally being so big doesn’t help us, unless there’s a big sporting event, but for us now, being big is really playing to our advantage,” Fusilier said.

Just down the street, Chris Rippe with Bierstadt Lagerhaus got good news: he’ll be one of the first businesses to be approved for expanding dining outdoors. He’s converting his parking lot in front of the brewery into dining.

“This is the only way to get even close to numbers that sustain a rent payment for a building that large,” Rippe said. “Turning a parking lot into somewhere that somebody actually wants to sit and have a meal and a beer is hard when it’s just a slab of asphalt.”

Now it’s a race for finding tents, tables and chairs at an affordable price, for businesses that are already strapped for cash. Rippe says businesses should keep in mind how hot asphalt gets in the dead of summer, as they’ll need to find a way to make customers comfortable.

But not every businesses has the advantage of a large parking lot, ripe for social distancing tables.

“We’re a narrow, long restaurant. We might at best have five of our 15 tables and no bar seating if we open up in-house dining,” said Elliot Strathmann, the owner of Spuntino, an Italian restaurant in the Highlands.

The restaurant has a capacity of 65, and Strathmann says they won’t open indoor dining until they can expand outdoors. A small parking lot flanks the side of Spuntino with less than a dozen spaces.

“There’s no reasonable sidewalk space, we can’t expand to the street,” Strathmann said. “We don’t have the other options other restaurants might have.”

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