LONG BEACH — The only things sitting on the sidewalk in front of Mums Restaurant these days are two potted palms--not exactly the lively scene owner John Morris envisioned when he opened his place downtown nearly two years ago.
He had wanted a sidewalk cafe, and even had one for a few short weeks. Then "within the first 30 days I was cited for it. I had my wrist slapped.
"The Redevelopment Agency guideline booklet included outdoor cafes. But nobody at that time had checked with the city attorney's office," Morris recalled. It turned out that setting up tables and chairs on public sidewalk space violated city law, and Morris had to put his tables away.
"It would have given a little life to the street. We're surrounded by empty stores," he remarked ruefully. "For a beach community not to consider sidewalk-style dining I think is ridiculous."
Local officials apparently agree. This week the City Council gave preliminary approval to an ordinance that would allow restaurants to use public sidewalk space for cafes, provided the sidewalks are at least 15 feet wide. "I think it's a long time coming," said Morris, who intends to haul the tables out front again when the new law goes into effect.
"I've been pushing this for four years. Ever since restaurants were slated to go on Pine Avenue and the Promenade," said Councilman Evan Braude, who represents the downtown area. "We want there to be a feeling of people on the streets."
That is not always the feeling one gets downtown, which is struggling for hustle, bustle and some urban polish.
"It adds an interesting element to the street," said Redevelopment Agency Director Susan Shick, who approached the city attorney's office about drafting the sidewalk dining proposal. It was not so much that the city has not wanted sidewalk cafes as that it has not paved the way for them in local ordinances, she added.
Most of the interest in sidewalk cafes has come from downtown, which has some wide sidewalks, an emerging number of restaurants and a slowly growing number of office workers. The owners of System M and the Pine Avenue Fish House, both on Pine Avenue, say they will take advantage of the new regulations to serve patrons under the sun.
"You would think with the weather there would be a lot more" sidewalk cafes in Southern California than there are, said Sam King of the Universal Restaurant Group, which runs the Fish House and restaurants in Santa Monica.
But local ordinances and state health codes often conspire against sipping a drink under a sidewalk umbrella. "We're too damned concerned about people sneezing on food and not concerned enough about other things," King commented, calling the prospect of downtown cafes "exciting."
The ordinance will be back before the council for a second reading next week and, if passed, will go into effect a month later.