'Every seat matters': Wilton restaurants credit outdoor dining for enduring pandemic

WILTON — After a calendar year of uncertainty, adhering to various social distancing guidelines and having to be flexible with their business models, local restaurants are hoping to find some steady footing moving forward.

Many businesses hold a keen focus on continuing their ability to serve patrons outdoors as the warm weather approaches. Outdoor dining, according to restaurant owners, stimulated their eatery’s business throughout 2020.

“For us, outdoor dining was huge,” said Mario Lopez, owner of Bianco Rosso in Wilton. “From what we were just doing with takeout at first, to when we began outdoor dining, our business increased by about 30 to 40 percent.”

Restaurants were afforded the opportunity to provide outdoor dining through Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive orders last year. In Section 2 of Lamont’s executive orders, the ability for “expedited municipal review of outdoor dining and retail” was rolled out, and late last month, Lamont’s orders were extended another 30 days.

At a Wilton Planning and Zoning meeting last month, commissioners discussed the possibility of drafting town-specific outdoor dining regulations once Lamont’s executive orders expire. The chairman said they were “long overdue.”

“We didn't have an allowance to serve at the tables outside,” said Devin O’Keeffe, a manager at the Little Pub on Route 7. “They were allowed to order takeout and eat at the tables, but that was all.”

O’Keeffe surmised the issue of outdoor dining at the Little Pub had more to do with its parking lot’s proximity to Route 7 rather than COVID-19 restrictions. Moving forward, though, O’Keeffe said he believes the restaurant could provide outdoor dining behind the building with ample social distancing measures and far enough away from the road. He hopes the eatery can get a chance to utilize the full scope of outdoor dining.

“Anything where we can receive an added interest in (patrons) coming to dine with us, that would help,” O’Keeffe said. “Given the parameters, we could make an enjoyable area for outdoor dining.”

He estimates the property could safely fit roughly 25 people. He said the restaurant isn’t looking to add a “massive tent space,” but a few extra seats to help stimulate business through the summer months.

“It would be nice to have options, for people and us,” he said. “Especially during the summer time.”

Marly’s Bar and Bistro on Ridgefield Road shares the same sentiments.

“At a time like this, every seat matters,” owner Marc Avery said.

The restaurant was mentioned by the town planner at the Planning and Zoning meeting as an eatery that would be able to utilize more space for its outdoor dining.

Last year, Marly’s was able to serve “about 40” seats outside, according to Avery. “Outdoor dining was fantastic until about October,” he said.

He said the restaurant is prepared to serve the same amount this year, but thinks that he can safely add a few more seats for patrons.

Avery said some restaurants around town were allowed to use a few parking lot spaces to add extra seating, and he is hoping that Marly’s will be approved to do the same, estimating that would add “at least 12 seats” to the outdoor dining area.

Bianco Rosso’s Lopez, who also owns Craft 14 in Wilton, said both restaurants utilized outdoor dining last year. Bianco Rosso’s indoor capacity was cut by more than half, from 120 to 50, and Lopez said the roughly 45 outdoor seats played a huge role last year.

When outdoor dining halted for the most part around November, he said patrons were less likely to dine at the restaurant if indoor dining was the only option.