Parisian-café ambiance proliferates in Palm Desert with extension of patio dining permits initiated during pandemic

Nov 17, 2021

Nestled in California's famed Coachella Valley, Palm Desert has long been a popular retreat for “snowbirds” from colder climates. Many of its restaurants rely on a seasonal swell of tourists, which nearly doubles the city’s population of 48,000 from October to May.

When the Governor issued his 2020 stay-at-home order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Palm Desert officials feared that many of the city’s restaurants would close for good. Moving quickly and in coordination with evolving public safety orders, they granted dozens of temporary permits to those wishing to operate dining decks in the public right-of-way or parking spaces. 

The permits were a much-needed lifeline for many businesses, including the popular Grill-A-Burger. “It was an eyeopener,” said owner Salima Nurani. “This is what California dining should have been all along. People were hungry to be at a restaurant, no pun intended. It was really a celebratory atmosphere.”

Fulltime Palm Desert resident Terri Tallen agrees. “I love outdoor dining. It was so much fun to suddenly have so many options to eat outside,” she said. “We have such fabulous weather here in Palm Desert. Outdoor dining is what this town should be all about.”

Although the move was one borne out of financial necessity — both for the restaurateurs and the city — it was one that officials had long pondered. 

“We were already having conversations about how to capture more space in certain parts of town, particularly our El Paseo Shopping District,” said Eric Ceja, the city’s deputy director of development services. “How can we capture more pedestrian space, more public space? How can we make the streets seem livelier? The dining decks really made that happen.”   

El Paseo has long been the crown jewel of Palm Desert. The tree-lined boulevard is filled with public art, upscale stores, and boutiques — which visitors often missed due to its length and car-centricity. Expanded outdoor dining, combined with efforts to improve walkability, injected a new type of energy into the corridor. “It created the unique and desired effect we were looking for,” said Ceja.

John and Marnie Parkes have been coming down to Palm Desert from Canada for years to escape the cold and enjoy the warm weather. They never understood why more restaurants didn’t offer outside dining.

“Walking along El Paseo this week reminded me of being in Europe,” said John Parkes. “With all of the people outside on the patios dining, it was much more lively, and created a much better ambiance. I’m really happy they plan to keep it like this.”

Restaurants and residents have been supportive of the program. In June, the city council extended the permits an additional year for restaurants that bring their dining decks into compliance with a new set of design and safety rules, which were created in consultation with the city attorneys department, the California Joint Powers Insurance Authority, and city council.

To support still-struggling businesses, the city council also approved a matching grant program — up to $5,000 — for dining deck improvements that adhere to the new design and safety guidelines. To date, 10 temporary permits have been reapproved, one-third of the total number issued in 2020.

Today, life has started to return to its pre-pandemic rhythm in many parts of the state. However, Palm Desert officials, residents, and restaurateurs hope the program can become a permanent city fixture. The project is good for the city, the restaurants, and the community noted Ceja. The restaurateurs and nearby shops enjoy more business, which increases the city’s sales and tax revenue, and the quality of life increases for nearby residents and tourists.

“These dining decks have been out there for a year already. They’re going to be out there for an additional two years,” stated Ceja. “Long-term, if they continue to be popular and we’ll received, I think we start developing more permeant solutions with restaurants.” 

Grill-a-Burger, which sits outside the El Paseo area, is already working with their landlord to develop a permanent outdoor dining space. “We’re not truly out of the pandemic. Outdoor dining is no longer a bonus,” said Nurani. “It’s becoming more of a requirement and our customers, staff — everybody — is really happy to have that. We hope that we’ll have a permanent outdoor space that can carry on past COVID-19, if there is ever such a time.” 

“Creating spaces to eat outdoors made a big difference to restaurants during the pandemic and to people like me who wanted to get out and support our restaurants,” Palm Desert resident Elaine Shannon said. “By maintaining outdoor patio dining, restaurants can serve more people and hopefully make up some of what they lost over the past couple of years. And personally, I like having the choice.”

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