Boston’s North End’s outdoor dining program starts late — and requires restaurants to spring up unexpectedly.
The city planned to grant outdoor seating to neighborhood restaurants known for their Italian restaurants and historic character starting April 8. However, the city has pushed that back to May 1. And on Thursday night, the city announced that North End restaurants will pay a $7,500 fee for the ability to seat diners al fresco.
Bob Luz of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association said the fee came out of nowhere.
“The North End community – and I would say it rightly so – is very upset,” Luz said. “Two weeks before they prepare to open, they find out something like that.”
Money from the fee will be used to offset issues like parking related to outdoor dining, the city said. Boston has formed a committee to oversee how funds are spent within the North End community.
Restaurants in Boston and across the state have touted alfresco dining as a major boon for business amid the pandemic, especially as the COVID-19 surge drove away customers wary of eating indoors. North End restaurateur Frank DePasquale called al fresco dining a “savior” in a WBUR interview last March.
However, some North End residents said they were sick of the crowds, traffic and noise that extended al fresco dining brought to their backyards last spring and summer.
The old, narrow streets of the North End are crammed with restaurants, giving city officials unique planning and application considerations. Last spring, North End restaurants were able to add outdoor seating on public sidewalks and certain streets.
In November, Mayor Michelle Wu extended Boston’s 2021 restaurant season through New Year’s Eve. But the change excluded the North End. And this year it’s a similar story: The citywide end date for al fresco dining is “a date to be determined in December,” Boston officials said — except in the North End, which ends the season on December 5. 30, subject to compliance.”
Wu defended the new fees in comments to WBUR on Saturday. It’s a balancing act, she said: Alfresco dining is good for business but comes with downsides like more rodents and litter.
“We want to support both the restaurants and the neighbors, and that means we need to have a way to address the additional impact here,” Wu said.
Even in warmer weather, the city’s latest move is leaving restaurants with a bad taste in their mouths, Luz said, especially after the pandemic has taken a big bite out of the bottom line of those who have managed to stay afloat.
“These guys don’t have two nickels to rub together yet,” he said, adding that the fee “doesn’t seem like the best way to further what has really been a tremendous community-building project over the last few years.”
Ducali Pizzeria has hosted outdoor dining for the past two years. But owner Philip Frattaroli says with the new fees, the restaurant likely won’t this summer. He hopes the city and restaurants can reach a compromise, as he worries about what the cost will mean for small businesses.
“There’s value to the city that we bring,” he said. “And when restaurants start closing, it’s not good for anyone.”
With reports from WBUR’s Josie Guarino, Paul Connearney and Amanda Beland.