A taste of winter in early April couldn’t dull the appetites of downtown restaurant owners hungry to resurrect Meadville’s al fresco dining scene.
Seated inside JT’s SteamTable Restaurant and Catering as flurries swirled past the window on Thursday, owner Melissa Kebert said that snow or no snow, she hopes to bring back the garden-like setting in the alley around the corner from her restaurant as soon as possible.
“People love it,” Kebert said. “The next two months — we’re in Pennsylvania, so it’s all over the place. We’ll have a bunch of warm and we’ll have a bunch of really cold, but I can’t wait.”
Members of Meadville City Council at their most recent meeting unanimously approved outdoor dining areas on two city streets for Kebert’s restaurant, located near the intersection of Chestnut and Mulberry streets, and Julian’s Bar and Grill, located a couple of blocks east at the intersection of Chestnut and South Cottage streets. Portions of Mulberry and South Cottage immediately north of Chestnut will be closed to traffic, allowing the two restaurants to set up seating and entertainment areas.
D.J. York, the chef who owns Julian’s, said the response to last year’s outdoor expansion was a key factor in the restaurant’s survival through the pandemic restrictions imposed on the dining industry.
“It was fantastic,” York said as he worked on preparations for the ham, prime rib and lamb family dinners that customers would be picking up ahead of Easter. “I hope it’s something we can continue year after year. It gives downtown Meadville a big-city feel, like something you would see in the street in Cleveland or Pittsburgh.”
Though JT’s SteamTable and Julian’s are the only restaurants thus far approved to occupy sections of city streets, they are by no means the only establishments with plans to offer outdoor dining opportunities. Tables and chairs have already popped up outside McClure’s Fish House and More, The Whole Darn Thing Sub Shop and elsewhere. Other restaurants are seeking permission for use of city property as well.
Ron Gebhardt, owner of Chipper’s Pub, said on Friday that he was again seeking permission to set up four four-seat tables on Market Alley, the city-owned scenic walkway that runs past the rear of his bar from opposite the Market House to Park Avenue. He’s also heard from other tavern owners in the neighborhood who are considering similar moves.
The Chipper’s seating in Market Alley, which was joined by two tables out front on the Chestnut Street sidewalk, should work even better this year, according to Gebhardt.
“With the relaxing rules, I think we’ll be able to take better advantage of it,” he said. State restrictions on restaurants were eased Sunday: Bar service will once again be allowed; alcohol service will be permitted without the purchase of food; curfews on alcohol sales and consumption will be lifted; and indoor dining capacity will be increased to 75 percent for restaurants that undergo the state’s self-certification process.
The changes and the likelihood of better weather have some restaurant owners more optimistic than they have been in more than a year.
York still worries that with any restrictions there will be a segment of the population that won’t consider dining out, but he hopes to lure them with improvements inside and out. The bar section of Julian’s has new flooring and new furniture designed to give it more of a restaurant feel, and the outdoor area will feature improved seating and lighting and new socially distanced activities to go along with the live music on weekends.
The physical upgrades follow months of constant pivoting in the face of changing pandemic conditions and government restrictions that took a significant toll on the industry.
“Everybody lost big time — and it wasn’t just a little bit,” York said, noting that Julian’s was one of several dozen restaurants to benefit from more than $650,000 in federal stimulus funding distributed through the county’s Bar and Restaurant Assistance program. “We’ve been fortunate, really blessed, to have the support of the community.”
JT’s SteamTable — under its former name, Java Tree Cafe and Catering — benefited from the program too and simultaneously scrambled to innovate, just as Julian’s and other eateries did. The restaurant rebranding was part of that effort to broaden its appeal as the pandemic put the squeeze on revenue. The menu offers a wide variety of “down home, stick-to-your-sides kinds of food,” according to Kebert, and JT’s is more than just the coffeeshop some perceived it to be.
That’s true in more ways than one: Inside the rebranded JT’s, customers will find two more of Kebert’s business brands: Boho Swag Jewelry and Accessories and Java Tree Specialties and Gift Shop.
“You have to keep reinventing yourself,” Kebert said. “What else can you do?”
The reinvention continues with the impending transformation of the Mulberry Street alley into an oasis of green amid the city’s asphalt. A little dusting of snow on the four tables along the Chestnut Street entrance of her eatery couldn’t dissuade Kebert from believing that brighter days were on the horizon.
“Being any kind of business owner is really rough right now, but especially with a restaurant business, it’s tough — but we’re still here,” she said. “I think we’re going to be OK.”
Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.