When the McMenamins Elks Temple opens for business on April 24, not only will its interior be a stunning showplace with restaurants, bars, hotel rooms and a concert venue – its exterior will be home to the largest sidewalk café in the city.
Located just outside the door of the Spanish Bar, the outdoor area is on the landing of the historic Spanish Steps that stand adjacent to the Elks building that the McMenamin brothers and their architects have beautifully renovated. Outdoor seating will also be set up in front of McMenamins on the sidewalk along Broadway for a total of about 50 altogether, adding even more opportunity to enjoy the city.
The café marks an important improvement for Tacoma city government as well. In the recent past, it was a cumbersome process for restaurant and bar owners to secure a permit to set up outdoor seating areas near pedestrian right-of-ways, but city councilman Robert Thoms set out to change that. In 2015, he went to work creating an ordinance to streamline the outdoor permitting process, and within the first year there was a 600 percent increase in permits being granted.
“People just weren’t getting permits because the process was so goofy,” Thoms said.
Now it looks to improve even more with the McMenamins project in town.
“When the McMenamin (brothers) first approached the city about three months ago to use the Spanish Steps landing (for an outdoor café), we had 14 different ways to say no,” Thoms said, and thus a pilot program was launched. “I plan to take our existing sidewalk café ordinance and tweak it for additional businesses in the future.”
The pilot program with McMenamins runs from now until October
“Outside seating is a big part of it,” Brian McMenamin said of the overall McMenamins concept. “We love having it open because people love to be outside.”
New rules from the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board are helping as well. Up until about two years ago, the state required a physical barrier to separate outdoor sidewalk seating areas from pedestrian right-of-ways, such as the wrought iron gating outside of the Matador downtown. This proved to be an awkward requirement, however, and it posed some difficulties with the Americans with Disabilities Act due to wheelchairs not having enough room to access outdoor seating areas with a hardened delineation.
“You don’t have to create all this extra infrastructure and make it burdensome for businesses to accommodate their clients,” Thoms said.
The solution: painted or adhesive squares called “beacons” on the sidewalk to define seating areas and the public right-of-way. As Thoms explained, “Now, instead of poles or a fence, you have these beacons that you can walk right through. What I hope to get from the pilot program are changes to my own ordinance to enhance it to all beacons and not physical barriers.”
Other jurisdictions in the state of Washington, including Seattle, Kirkland and Bothell, allow for alcohol servers to cross the pedestrian way, all approved by the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board.
“In these three cities, they’ve also been able to do away with the rather unsightly metal corrals that enclose the sidewalk cafés in favor of more pedestrian-friendly sidewalk beacons showing the limits of where alcohol can be served and consumed,” Thoms explained. “McMenamins will be the first without physical barrier and I think it is far better atheistically, also allows more flexibility with use of the sidewalk when needed and doesn’t impact the existing infrastructure at all. The goal is to create more access to the outside for customers to enjoy.
McMenamins General Manager D.J. Simcoe said that outdoor heaters would be placed during the chilly months.
“It’ll look really nice and I can just see people sitting out here for breakfast,” another plus about McMenamins going in, as a nearby breakfast place is needed in that part of downtown.
At the McMenamins Spanish Steps café, there is plenty of room for pedestrians and the improvements being made will ensure greater utility and safety, not to mention the great views and the European vibe, given the steps’ 1915 beaux arts design. The McMenamins have done much to incorporate the history of the former Elks Temple into a new showplace, including a Spanish Bar and Restaurant and Spanish Ballroom.
The Spanish Steps will remain a public walkway as well. The new lighting and increased activity coming is bound to keep people from doing nefarious things on the steps, which has been commonplace until now and taxing to Tacoma law enforcement. Moves are also underway at the city level to add two new bicycle officers to patrol the area in addition to McMenamins 24 hour security staff.
Brian McMenamin said that the McMenamins Elks Temple size is comparable to the larger McMenamins locations but rather unique in that its size is determined by height rather than square footage of surface area. “Sizewise, this one is up there. It’s different from the others because everything is within one building. Each floor is another journey.”
“This pilot project will be a great amenity for Tacomans to enjoy the outdoors in a way that they haven’t had in the past, and I’m proud to have helped expand our sidewalk café opportunities,” Thoms said. “Now we will seek to create more jobs, more fun right here in Tacoma outdoors.”