Sidewalk Cafés

Why didn't we think about this a few decades earlier?

One ordinary Tuesday recently, I walked down Gay Street at 4:15 for an emergency snack. It was a lovely day, maybe two degrees warmer than perfect. But 4:15 isn't the end of a newspaper guy's day: I had at least another couple hours' work to do, and needed some pre-supper sustenance, so I headed over to J's for some sardines and pork rinds and a Zero.

Before I got there I heard laughter echoing down the block. Across from J's, jovial people were already out, more than a dozen of them, sitting at the outdoor tables on the sidewalks in front of a couple of restaurants.

I took the long way back and found the same picture, but much bigger, over on Market Square: people sitting outside restaurants, drinking and chatting, at several different places, on a weekday afternoon. I hadn't counted recently, but there are now a full dozen sidewalk cafés on Market Square. I thought about the rest of the neighborhood, the Old City and elsewhere, and figured there are outdoor seating areas at 25 restaurants, bars, and cafés downtown alone.

I tried to recall sidewalk cafés in the 1980s, when I first worked downtown. To the best of my recollection, there were approximately none.

A little later, of course, all these restaurants are packed, some with waiting lines. On any half-nice day, the sidewalk tables fill up first. Of course, it's that way nearly everywhere these days, even in suburban cafés where the only view is a big parking lot. Several of them stay busy well after midnight. (As a teenager, I loved the Bob Dylan lyric, "there was music in the cafés at night / And revolution in the air...." I pictured it in another city.)

You see it in travel documentaries, in tour guides, in newspaper travel sections, on municipal websites. Any time you want to depict any city in a flattering light, what you do is show photos of people sitting at café tables on sidewalks. It makes a city seem inviting in ways that pictures of big houses or municipal centers can't. You're advertising several things at once: agreeable climate, openness to strangers, a sense of security about crime and panhandlers—and it strongly implies the idea that your citizens have things to talk about.

The amenity was once considered mainly European. Here it's obviously now more than a pose. Maybe it's more even than a restaurant-retail trend. It may mark a sea change in how Americans interact with their communities. Here's an irony: The rush toward electronic basement-to-basement communications has counterbalanced a nearly opposite movement in favor of increased face-to-face interactions. I'm willing to bet the average Knoxvillian in 2009 meets more people than he ever did in the 20th century. A lot of it's thanks to sidewalk cafés.

Of course, it raises new dilemmas. I've sometimes avoided walking down a café-table block just because I don't have time to chat. Is one obliged to say hello to everyone one knows while walking by a sidewalk café? What if you're late for a meeting? What if you're walking on the other side of the street?

Cafe precursor: patio seating

Sidewalk seating was, at best, rare before about 1992. I do remember a couple of drive-ins and burger joints with picnic-table seating, mainly for families with messy kids. They're not the same thing. You went out to a restaurant, the idea was, you ate inside. Proprietors liked the idea of controlling the environment, serving air conditioning and ambient music along with the daily special. They didn't want their customers out on the sidewalk. Maybe they worried we might be tempted by a rival's aroma—or that we'd wander off without paying. Moreover, Knoxville customers didn't necessarily want to deal with any strangers who might wander by, especially Knoxville strangers. Also, there was a time in living memory when eating outside in downtown Knoxville would mean tolerating measurable quantities of soot in your mashed potatoes.

Sometime in the '70s, a few trendier restaurants added patio seating. I don't remember who was first, and it's a difficult thing to check. I'd bet it was the Bahou Container, the Mediterranean café in Homberg Place, in the 1970s. A few others followed, like the first-ever Ruby Tuesday, on 20th Street. The first time I ever saw a Cinzano patio umbrella in my hometown was there. Sophisticates who'd been to Paris found it droll.

The patio was adjacent to 20th Street, but it wasn't exactly a sidewalk café. Ruby's was jealous about its customers, kept them behind a high wall, as if their patio were a swimming pool for suburban nudists. Probably smart, because the kind of people I used to hang around with liked to steal their beer mugs. There was no sense of pub loyalty in those days.

It was a novelty, and pleasant on a nice day. They weren't really sidewalk cafés. They weren't places where you'd expect to see people you didn't expect to see. The ones I recall had, as their models, not cafés, but patios, on the country-club plan—away from the street and separated from the rabble.

The 1982 World's Fair touted a few self-consciously internationale sidewalk cafés. But I think it was Tomato Head that pioneered the authentic sidewalk-café concept, on Market Square in the early '90s. Since then my daughter has grown up in a city where sitting outside close to strangers and hollering at friends in the street seems perfectly normal, and elicits no jokes about berets.

It's all a good thing. We're all seeing old friends, and meeting new people, just because we're walking by while they're eating on the sidewalk, or vice versa. I have only one complaint. Cafés are famous for intellectual ferment. Think of sidewalk cafés, you think of French impressionists, expatriate novelists, existentialists, beat poets, international spies.

I overhear café-table conversations every day. I'm sorry, it's hard to help it. And folks, we need more interesting stuff to talk about.

That's the next step.