'Having this was a blessing': Fairfield, Westport restaurants welcome extended outdoor dining

FAIRFIELD — Thanks to the renewal of state and local legislation, the joys and benefits of expanded outdoor dining continue to aid restaurants and please customers.

“Expanded outdoor dining has created a vibrancy in many of our neighborhoods in ways that we haven’t see before,” Gov. Ned Lamont said in a press release following the legislature’s recent approval of a bill that makes it easier for municipalities to expand outdoor dining.

Both Fairfield and Westport have acted quickly to renew their support for outdoor dining for another year, with each respective planning and zoning commission working with administrations to shape the reality.

“We’re very excited about that,” said Paul Garbuio, co-owner of The Sinclair Bar & Kitchen in Fairfield. “We’re glad to see that the government is really watching out for small businesses and gives us the opportunity to make up all the lost revenue from these very challenging times.”

Like many restaurants, he explained how, in an effort to augment their outdoor dining, Sinclair made substantial changes to its 30 feet or so of street-facing storefront. It removed its solid walls and replaced them with movable doors and windows on a staggered façade that helps create more of a connection with the 10 or so tables of outdoor seating it was able to add in the parking lot.

“It was a big investment on our part to try and keep this going,” Garbuio said. “It’s great to know you get another year out of it to try and recoup that investment.”

Westport First Selectman Jim Marpe also applauded the continuation of outdoor dining.

“I’m glad the Planning and Zoning Commission adopted this text amendment because it gives our restaurants the ability to serve more patrons with greater assurance that their investment in outdoor dining will result in an appropriate financial return,” he said.

“Moreover,” he said, “as the warmer months return, it also allows the continuation of a pleasant dining alternative that has been hugely popular with residents and visitors alike.”

Julian Teichroeb, assistant manager with Romanacci Pizza Bar in Westport, said they added outdoor seating on what were formerly parking spaces on Railroad Place by the train station. The addition was very popular, especially during the warmer months.

“Having this was a blessing,” Teichroeb said. “We were crazy packed last year.”

Prior to that, he said, the ban on indoor dining put in place as the pandemic got underway almost killed their business, which is still working its way back.

The latest statewide changes have allowed restaurants to increase capacity up to 100 percent, but that remains contingent on six feet of space in between diners, as well as their general comfort with eating indoors.

“People feel safer still being outside, getting the fresh air, not wearing their masks. It’s more liberating,” Teichroeb said, noting that their inside dining area is rather small. “You can’t beat nature, so join it.”

Fairfield First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick also recognized the challenge the pandemic put on local eateries.

“Our town’s restaurants have endured a tremendous economic burden during the last year due to COVID-19,” Kupchick said in a press release this week. “The recent removal of capacity restrictions, coupled with the town’s continued expansion of outdoor seating, will further help these establishments get back on their feet and move toward a more stable future.”

Dominick Spadaro, manager of Pronto in Fairfield, said that while they can have people inside, “not too many” want to dine inside because of their COVID concerns.

With only a couple of tables outside, he said he would love to see some changes made that might offer his restaurant the opportunity to accommodate more customers there.

“It’s definitely tough,” he said, noting that rainy weather can also wash away business.

“Weather plays a big issue on the outside dining,” Spadaro said. “When you don’t have good weather, you can’t have outdoor seating.”