ATLANTIC CITY — It’s quiet outside the Pic-A-Lilli Pub on a recent spring day. The party is happening inside the 24-hour bar, with the stools filled and music playing in the background.
But owner Don Russell wants to bring the soiree outside.
More specifically, onto the blacktop parking lot adjacent to the Tennessee Avenue watering hole, where he envisions a 25-foot by 35-foot deck housing an outdoor bar and tables for patrons. He said he plans to apply for permits soon and have the project completed by the end of the summer.
“I want to keep up with everyone else,” Russell said.
Outdoor eating, a hallmark in most major U.S. cities, is scant in areas of Atlantic City off the Boardwalk. But it’s exploded in neighboring shore towns only a few miles to the south. In Ocean City, Ventnor and Margate, nearly every eatery offers sidewalk seating, with scores of breakfast goers enjoying pancakes and eggs on the pavement on sunny mornings.
It’s not Paris, but some want the European-style open-air dining to catch on in the resort, too. The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority is recommending changes to its Master Plan that would break down at least one barrier for restaurants wanting to expand outside.
A crop of new businesses on South Tennessee Avenue have taken the lead. They say extra sidewalk foot traffic can enhance the vibrancy and perception of safety in neighborhoods.
Low walkability and a need for social services might be stopping more businesses from setting up shop outside in Atlantic City, said Michael Brennan, owner of Cardinal Bistro, a Ventnor restaurant that’s moving to the resort next year.
But that’s exactly why he wants his eatery’s new (undisclosed) location to have an outdoor element.
“If you’re sitting outdoors and eating and someone comes up asking for spare change, that’s a problem,” he said. “But that’s the challenge we’re going to take on.”
Its new location will include an outdoor dining area attached to the main building. Chefs will grow herbs and plants in the space as well. It will be modeled after high-end restaurants in Philadelphia and New York, he said, where open-air dining isn’t just plastic chairs and picnic tables.
Since launching Cardinal Bistro in 2016, Brennan says, he’s learned that entire business districts can benefit from having restaurants with outdoor seating. Those that offer it are typically more mindful of their outward appearance, he said, and that in turn helps beautify streets.
“We have to maintain and take care of our façade to a certain level. We’re out there sweeping the sidewalks, power washing and collecting all the cigarette butts,” he said. “It’s a business, but at the same time, you’re here to serve the community.”
A University of Utah planning scholar found in a 2015 study that making a place memorable can increase pedestrian activity, with al fresco dining being one way to do that. That, in turn, puts more “eyes on the street” and deters crime.
And in Atlantic City, some officials are taking note.
In its latest Master Plan, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority wants to scrap a zoning regulation requiring restaurants to have more indoor seating than outdoor. The change was proposed in part because Landshark Bar and Grill couldn’t expand its beach bar without a variance.
But an unintended consequence would be getting more people with their eyes outside as a check on crime, said Lance Landgraf, the authority’s planning and development director.
“If someone is interested in putting tables outside, they’re gonna have their waiter or waitress staff out there,” Landgraf said. “Outside, they can see things that are going on.”
Other businesses simply want day-trippers to enjoy one of Atlantic City’s greatest assets: the ocean breeze.
That was the idea behind the patio attached to the Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall, said Jamie Hoagland, marketing director for the restaurant and bar.
When the weather is warm, about 200 people can eat and drink in a secluded, grassy area next to the hall that’s enclosed by a wooden fence and tall bamboo plants.
“We’re right off the Boardwalk, so you can hear the ocean from the patio,” she said. “It’s just a beautiful place.”