Aspen City Council lukewarm on winter outdoor dining

Rick Carroll
The Aspen Times
A crowd fills the Ajax Tavern patio on a sunny afternoon for Aspen closing day. The city is contemplating allowing outdoor winter dining at 28 other restaurants.
Jeremy Wallace |

Members of Aspen City Council aren’t ready to put a fork in outdoor dining for next winter, but they want more analysis done before they move forward with the concept.

The city’s elected officials offered varying positions on whether to allow individual tents along the center of both of downtown’s outdoor pedestrian malls for dining, or permitting individual tents or enclosures, accompanied by heaters, in the eateries’ private space. Those were the two options that were floated to them at a work session Tuesday.

Twenty-eight Aspen restaurants have access to outdoor space that is covered by their liquor licences, according to City Clerk Linda Manning. Some of them have expressed interest in using the city-owned space in the malls and other public amenity spaces for winter outdoor dining. Another option has been to enclose their private dining space.

Leading the al fresco mission is Ryan Chadwick, owner of the Grey Lady restaurant, which is located less than a block west of the Hyman Avenue pedestrian mall. In December, Chadwick sought the city’s permission to enclose the restaurant’s outdoor patio. The city granted Grey Lady a temporary permit from Dec. 24 through Jan. 3, one of the busiest times of the year for Aspen’s service industry.

Chadwick asked the council to consider trying outdoor dining on an experimental basis next winter for up to 30 days.

“I think trying this for one season isn’t really going to hurt anything,” he said. “Let’s see how many requests you get from restaurateurs.”

City councilors said one option is off the table: putting large tents in each mall to accommodate outdoor dining. The tents would be erected on city-owned property while the restaurants would lease the space. That was the suggestion made by the Commercial Core and Lodging Commission at its April 6 meeting.

The Historic Preservation Committee, however, came out against the tents at its April 13 meeting. Rather, it supported heaters and umbrellas on the restaurants’ private space, something the Commercial Core and Lodging Commission opposed on the private property of the dining establishments.

The City Council is the ultimate deciding body for either concept. Members said they want to conduct more research and collect more feedback before making a final decision this summer or fall. Mayor Steve Skadron asked for feedback from the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, as well.

“I don’t know where I’m going to go on this yet,” Skadron said. “I need more input, and I do have concerns about aesthetics.”

Likewise, Councilwoman Ann Mullins expressed concern that enclosed patios would compromise downtown’s historic integrity and possibly degrade the pedestrian experience.

“Downtown is a somewhat dense development,” she said. “If you start adding tents or overhead structures along the mall … it would be uncomfortable for the pedestrians.”

Not all restaurants are on board with city-supported outdoor dining. Manning sent out a questionnaire to the 28 eateries, some of which said it would put them at a competitive disadvantage.

“Don’t rent a 30 seat restaurant and then try to weasel your way to 60 seats by putting up a tent and paying almost no rent, certainly nowhere near market rent,” wrote the owners of Mezzaluna — Deryk Cave and Grant Sutherland — to the city.

Chadwick, however, said outdoor dining would benefit not only the restaurants, but customers as well.

“By allowing more of these restaurants to utilize this space, it would help solve the lack of tables available as well as create a tremendous amount of tax revenue for the city,” he wrote in a letter to the city.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Chadwick said the tent enclosures can cost between $10,000 and $20,000. He said 10 days is not long enough to make that investment sustainable, but a 30-day period would suffice.

“Let’s test this for one season,” he said. “Maybe if its not for the entire season, then maybe it’s for a month.”