Some pandemic-born temporary outdoor dining options could become permanent features for dozens of restaurants in Irvine, depending on a vote from the City Council. On Tuesday, Jan. 25, the Irvine City Council will discuss the idea of adopting a permitting review process for outdoor dining permits for restaurants that added outdoor dining areas during the pandemic.

In March 2020, more than 60 restaurants across the city took advantage of the city’s special event permitting process, which allowed outdoor dining by waiving city zoning regulations during the state of emergency, when restaurants were asked to reduce capacity and ultimately cease indoor dining altogether.

While the concept of temporary outdoor dining – extending out to walkways, sidewalks and even parking lots – may have been a state health order, it was a tremendous help to local restaurant owners.

Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan said the program was well received, adding that it may be too soon to venture back inside considering the recent winter surge.

“We’ve definitely seen how beneficial it was to have outdoor dining to help keep our restaurants in business,” Khan wrote in a text to Irvine Weekly. “Now with the popularity of outdoor dining and ongoing variants, we wanted to make sure restaurants had the ability to continue outdoor dining.

While many restaurants had permitted outdoor dining space prior to the pandemic, Irvine City Council member Anthony Kuo explained that this conversation involves 65 different restaurants around Irvine that never officially went through a permitting process for outdoor dining and were grandfathered in during the pandemic.

“At Diamond Jamboree, I know that BCD Tofu [House], and a couple of other restaurants basically put tables outside and for a time – even part of their parking lot was coned off so tables could be put out there,” he said. “I think this was a unique position in that there were restaurants that didn’t do that. I think it’s something that people enjoy, I think it’s something that people recognize, but I also think that this is something – because we’re Irvine – we want to look at from a really holistic perspective.”

Kuo added he does not see a problem with making this a permanent feature for those specific restaurants, and that the conversation Tuesday may or may not include sunset dates depending on what the council decides.

However, Kuo said he is aware that some may have an issue with parking in Irvine, to begin with, but that’s not necessarily because people started eating outside.

“You take an ordinary shopping center, where folks have raised frustration about there not being enough parking, and that is as a result of overdevelopment – that is not the case at all,” Kuo explained. “What the case is, is that the shopping center that someone thinks is a shopping center, is no longer a shopping center – it’s a dinner center. It’s a shopping center that 20 years ago had a dry cleaner, a greeting card store, and a party supply store – somewhere where you’d only spend 10 or 15 minutes and leave. Now all of those storefronts are food places.”

Logistically speaking, Kuo said he hopes that this permitting process will help dictate where outdoor dining is feasible. While there will be an open conversation on the topic, Kuo said he would not be surprised if the discussion included the idea of making permanent changes – in terms of construction and redesign to accommodate outdoor dining areas.

“I think it’s definitely part of the conversation. I think you’ll see that pre, during and post-pandemic that the retail folks, particularly those in the Irvine Company, are very responsive to the market,” he said. “The next thing we’re going to get is some sort of guideline or regulation from the county – or from the state, or even from the federal government – on what’s allowed and what’s not allowed. Since those regulations and models are constantly changing, I think we have to do our best to be nimble – to not only come into compliance, but to adapt.”

While Orange County is still currently in a state of emergency, there are currently no county tiers or capacity limits statewide.