Birmingham's bistro ordinance was back under the microscope Monday night, as city commissioners struggled with a request to temporarily enclose the outdoor dining space at the newly-opened Social Kitchen and Bar.
In the end, commissioners approved a plan to install Isinglass curtains — similar to those used at Cafe Via — around Social Kitchen's outdooor dining area off Maple Road.
However, the decision didn't come without a fight, with one commissioner voicing concerns over whether extending the outdoor dining season defeats the original intent of the city's 2007 bistro ordinance.
Debate centers on seating capacity with longer outdoor dining season
The curtains only came before the commission after a hiccup with the Planning Department revealed the curtains weren't part of Social Kitchen's original plans. Social Kitchen and Bar was approved as one of the two bistros for 2012 in January.
However, while most commissioners agreed that letting Social Kitchen install the curtains shouldn't be a problem, Commissioner Rackeline Hoff took issue with the concept of extending the outdoor dining season at Birmingham's bistros.
Under the 2007 Birmingham bistro ordinance, the city may approve up to two new bistros a year. A bistro is defined as a restaurant with no more than 65 seats indoors, a full service kitchen and seasonal sidewalk seating. Bistro owners must also sign a contract with the city and receive a Special Land Use Permit.
Since that 65-seat requirement only applies to tables indoors, Hoff said she's concerned about the precedent of giving one bistro the chance of expanding their outdoor dining season — and thus, increasing the seating capacity of the restaurant.
"The bistro ordinance says specifically 65 seats," Hoff said. "If you can use your outdoor areas all year round, it's not longer a 65-seat bistro."
Hoff said it was the city commission's responsibility to put Social Kitchen's request on hold until they develop a plan for dealing with these requests in the future.
"What happens if all of the bistros decide to put up some kind of protective curtains so they can serve most of the year?" Hoff asked. "I see this as expanding their operation."
'What happened to the bistro concept? You're blowing it,' resident says
In addition, what made Social Kitchen's request even more difficult, Hoff said, was that the outdoor dining space is in a public alley. The curtained-off dining space at Cafe Via, for example, is on private property.
Social Kitchen is currently leasing the alley next to its East Maple location, planning staff explained; they do not need to remove their tables and chairs in the winter since it's not in the public right-of-way.
However, the other five commissioners present — Commissioner George Dilgard was absent Monday — disagreed, noting that Social Kitchen's location gave it a unique opportunity to offer outdoor dining long into the fall.
"Where else could this actually happen?" Mayor Mark Nickita asked. "Is this a precedent that could happen anywhere? It really couldn't."
Resident Dorothy Conrad, however, disgreed.
"Are you extending the seating capacity for this facility all year round?" Conrad asked. "What happened to the bistro concept? You're blowing it, that's what's happening."
In the end, the commission approved the measure 5-1, with Hoff voting against. This isn't the first issue with the bistro ordinance the City Commission has faced in recent weeks. It was only on Sept. 10 — after months of delay and back-and-forth — that commissioners agreed to assign the rights of the Papa Joe's bistro license to another entity. Commissioners Hoff and Stuart Sherman voted against, citing a flaw in the ordinance.