“Melbourne’s renowned foodie culture could embrace outdoor dining on a more permanent or seasonal basis.”
Other councils are more circumspect. Gabrielle De Vietri, the newly-elected mayor of the City of Yarra – which takes in Fitzroy – said the success of the outdoor dining program would be monitored, but the council’s immediate priority was to help businesses thrive amid COVID-19 restrictions.
Back on Gertrude Street, cocktail bar The Everleigh is seating diners on the footpath and building a parklet over the loading zone at the corner of Napier Street. The parklet means owner Michael Madrusan can employ two extra staff after a hard winter.
“Long term? Why not?” he said. “Keep it going. Don’t just close the book in March and say, ‘well, there you go, we threw you a bone, you’re welcome’.
“No, how about, ‘that was pretty cool, made the street look really good, everyone joined together and it was a really wonderful thing to see. How about we just keep this going in certain places?’ That makes sense.”
Mr Madrusan said it was lazy to rule out outdoor dining because of Melbourne’s unreliable weather.
“Figure out how to work with that instead of just shitting on it. What else is it going to be, another car park? Take the tram.”
Sam Rush, owner of Australian clothing label Handsom, opened her store on Gertrude Street eight years ago. She has had a busier than average November as shoppers made up for lost time after enduring 15 weeks of lockdown during Victoria’s second wave of COVID-19.
She thinks that alfresco dining, approved by Yarra Council and supported by the state government, is bringing back more business than a parking space ever could.
“With a street like Gertrude Street, we really benefit from general atmosphere … Often, people come just for its leisure activity. So you would go shopping in a few of your favourite stores and go for a drink at the pub and then maybe go out for dinner, all on the same street,” Ms Rush said.
Peter “PK” Kaylor, who organised the People of Gertrude Street group, has been living on the strip for three years and was sad to see it crumble this year.
He argues the street, which is well connected by trams and is not an arterial road, is “fundamentally better off having more outdoor capacity than car parks”.
“People on the street attract people, not parked cars.”
The pitch is modelled off historic pub the Builders Arms Hotel, which has long sat diners on dedicated space out the front that extends past parking.
A few doors down, Archie’s All Day cafe has temporarily added 22 seats by building an on-street parklet out the front.
“It looks amazing, it looks like a little garden party in our little parklet. That’s the vibe that we wanted,” owner Anthony Brem said.
While the view from Gertrude Street isn’t shared everywhere, there is broad agreement that outdoor dining could return in the summer months.
Chrissie Maus, general manager of the Chapel Street Traders Association, said it could be a sensible solution to have pop-up dining for three months every year.
But she said businesses in the precinct, in Stonnington Council, depended on free parking and needed it back when the parklet program ends on March 31.
Although the City of Melbourne will review outdoor dining next year, the council wants cheaper parking fees to help bring back shoppers who have rejected public transport during the pandemic.
So far, 1300 outdoor dining permits have been issued and almost 200 on-street parking spaces have been turned over in the city council, which includes Carlton and North Melbourne.
Of those parking spaces, 112 are metered and would normally bring in an average annual revenue of between $9500 to $22,000 each, depending on their location.
Planning Minister Richard Wynne, who has exempted venues from needing a permit to seat diners on footpaths for at least the next year, said outdoor dining was working in the warmer months.
“This has the potential to change our city not just this summer but every summer — longer-term options will be considered over the next 12 months.”
Ian Curley, co-owner and chef at Kirk’s Wine Bar in the CBD, sees the program as a Band-Aid that doesn’t solve the hardship hospitality is facing.
While he has outdoor dining on Hardware Lane, he doesn’t think bars and restaurants can rely on it because of Melbourne’s dreary weather.
“Good luck getting staff to carry food out to people when it’s raining, and people are sitting there going, ‘Excuse me, the croquettes you just served me are water logged’,” Mr Curley said last week.
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Rachel is a city reporter for The Age.