In the cities of southern Spain it seemed like some restaurant or other kind of eating and drinking establishment was using every square inch of paved space available for tables and chairs. They were even in narrow alleys and traffic triangles. They weren’t even directly in front of the bars and restaurants – some were across the street or around the corner. The logistics of serving tables that weren’t directly adjacent to the storefront didn’t seem to be a problem. Most places had three sets of prices, the lowest one for the bar, a second for tables, and third and highest for the “terrace;” tables outside.
The impact that this has on public spaces is enormous. It makes the urban centers incredibly lively: and not just centers – out of the way corners are animated by outdoor dining. It does make a difference that for most of the year southern Spain has daylight late into the evening – but these outdoor spaces are at their busiest from 10 P.M. to midnight, the Spanish dinner hour. While there is outdoor dining in North America, its informality and ubiquity amplifies its impact on Córdoba, Seville and Granada – even in Madrid (or maybe especially in Madrid). And, in observing outdoor tables when we returned to New York – most of which are behind barriers and lined up in rows – it struck me that the informality of the tables in Spain was essential. They are scattered about on the pavement – in just the way movable chairs are scattered – with a similar effect. People move the tables and chairs around – they control their own experience – which is so important to drawing people into public spaces.
I don’t know what the legal arrangement is that gives eating and drinking establishments the right to engage in commercial activity in these often tiny public spaces and narrow sidewalks – but it seems to me schemes to encourage these businesses to take advantage of underused pavement ought to be encouraged here. Extra tables are marginal revenue for restaurants – with less marginal cost than renting additional interior space. From the looks of things in the places we visited, the profit motive induces business people to be creative and aggressive about finding places where they can put tables and chair.
There are certainly some places in the southern United States where the outdoor dining season and the hours of daylight are similar to those in Seville. But the appeal of outdoor dining is so great, that even in places like Chicago, New York and Boston, I suspect that a six or seven month season is enough to get restaurants and bars to expand on the sidewalk.
Now maybe to make these informal tables successful serving sangria is essential. I would regard that as a small price to pay for the tremendous positive impact outdoor dining produces.