Dining “alfresco” - loosely translated in Italian to mean “in fresh air” - is a popular summertime activity when eating outdoors becomes a welcome option for those who want to break bread and enjoy a cooling libation with friends and family.
While many restaurants, pubs and cafes in New England have long offered outdoor seating on decks and patios, the expanding practice took on new meaning last year during the COVID-19 pandemic as struggling businesses looked for new ways to attract diners and keep them safe.
Many cities and towns last summer as the pandemic raged allowed for temporary outdoor dining to occur as they eased outdoor drinking and dining regulations to allow for makeshift patio spaces and the use of sidewalks, parking lots, on-street public parking areas and more for alfresco dining. Despite the fact that most restaurants around the country are now open for fullcapacity dining as the number of new coronavirus cases is at an all-time low, alfresco dining is back with a vengeance as eating outside last season was a big hit with diners.
This summer in Northampton, the concept has extended to partially closing Strong Avenue, a popular dining destination, and creating a lush, green oasis called “Summer on Strong.” The brainchild of Eastside Grill owner Deb Flynn, the attractive and welcoming remodeled roadway - approximately 0.7 miles long - stretches from the intersection of Strong Avenue and Main Street to the public lot next to Eastside, where vehicle traffic is now shut down. It is adorned with numerous plants and walking and biking room is expanded, allowing for more outdoor dining, live music and pedestrian-friendly shopping.
“The plan was actually born this winter when asking the question, ‘How are we going to get through another year of COVID-19 and creatively make more dining spaces for customers,” said Robbie Bocon, general manager of Eastside, which has been serving robustly flavored, seasonal American cuisine since 1985. “It was a brand-new idea that gave people another reason to come to Strong Avenue, as well as attracting new clientele through our doors.”
Gathering support from the businesses on Strong Avenue and others for her idea, Flynn and Bocon were able to gain quick approval from Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz for their vision, which was granted in April by the Northampton License Commission.
In the days and weeks ahead, plans were refined, $23,000 had to be raised to get the project off the ground, goods and services had to be purchased, and publicity had to be arranged for the opening in late May.
“Everyone loves it. The site is busy with people sitting around and enjoying a few beers with their food, in our case a burger or hot dog and fries, while listening to music. Restaurants are hurting and we needed this,” said Joe Igneri, co-owner of Local Burger.
As for the music to soothe the soul and bring an added ambiance to the avenue, $9,500 of the money raised went toward booking musicians to perform at the Dowd Performance Stage. Offered throughout the summer on Wednesday and Thursday from 5-8 p.m. and on Sundays from 3-6 p.m., a variety of musicians will be on tap performing a selection of blues, country, folk, jazz and more.
And speaking of “on tap,” Progression Brewery, which is actually located nearby on Pearl Street, has rolled their beer truck onto the avenue to pour some refreshing brews for those who want to imbibe.
“We will be serving up six different styles of beer plus craft hard seltzer,” said Drew Starkweather about the artisanal craft brewery that he founded with master brewer Todd Sullivan.
Among the cooling libations being poured at what Starkweather calls their “tap wagon” are their popular Noon Juice, which is a Session New England IPA, and their new Cape Time, another New England IPA, which he described as a “vacation in a can.”
“People seem to be really enjoying themselves in the laid back, relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere that has been created. We have not fully recovered from COVID-19 and its effects on indoor dining. Even though things have opened up, indoor business is still not flourishing as before, so introducing more outdoor spaces in a beautiful environment is important for our recovery,” Starkweather said.
Whether stopping by Strong Avenue to enjoy a cup of specialty coffee or tea along with a scrumptious breakfast or lunch sandwich from Familiars Coffee & Tea, a delicious pan roasted fresh New England Cod dish accompanied by just-picked local asparagus from Homestead, or for a multi-course, leisurely evening meal of chicken etouffee or seafood risotto at East Side Grill, all alfresco under a bright red umbrella if you choose, Summer at Strong appears to be the go-to summer destination for many diners looking for a fresh, new dining experience.
“Summer on Strong is the perfect example of why I moved from Boston to a smaller city like Northampton to open my restaurant, where businesses come together and collaborate as a team for their betterment and that of the city. Restaurants are the heart of a city, and we need people flocking back to us,” said Jeremy Werther, chef and owner of Homestead.
While parking is always a concern in any bustling city - about 8,500 New York City parking spots were blocked by roadside dining sheds during the pandemic - Mayor Narkewicz noted there are spaces where people can park nearby and walk to Strong Avenue, including off-street lots and the E. John Gare Parking Garage on Armory Street.
“This is a great example that shows that prioritizing pedestrians and outdoor dining and entertainment over parking, people will find a place to come be here,” he said in a recent story on MassLive.com marking the opening of “Summer on Strong.”
Summer on Strong is expected to run at least through Labor Day, longer if an extension is granted.
“I think we’ve created a successful blueprint for others to follow,” Bocon said.
“SUMMER ON STRONG” PARTICIPANTS
413-586-3347 • eastsidegrill.com
413-586-5857 • localnorthampton.com
413-341-3517 • progressionbrewing.com
413-586-0502 • eathomestead.com
FAMILIARS COFFEE & TEA
413-727-3578 • familiarscoffee.com