By Erika Webb
By now everyone probably knows downtown DeLand made national news again. This time in a CNN online travel article entitled "America's best small town comebacks."
Listed sixth among eight towns touted, DeLand was praised for making a "magical civic recovery" from its 75 percent downtown vacancy in the mid-1980s.
"DeLand's rows of shops, restaurants and museums along Woodland Boulevard and Indiana Avenue include the restored 1921 art deco Athens Theater, nearby Artisan Alley and a revived Garden District that inspired an award-winning documentary about urban renewal," the article stated.
Mainstreet Grill got the "Wow" for being "housed in the basement of an old bank building" in addition to "being voted DeLand's best restaurant for more than a decade" and for serving a "spectacular Sunday brunch."
Okay, but those CNN people must not have visited on a crystal clear day when Mainstreet's eight outside tables are filled with delighted diners, soothed by the sound of water cascading down the mural wall, or surely they would have mentioned it.
Lynne Coffey loves Mainstreet's food, but long days on her feet cause her -- halfway through the morning -- to crave even more sitting down outside under the awning, after bartender/server Niki Decker sees her to her favorite table in the back.
Ms. Decker, who has worked at Mainstreet Grill for five years, said she thinks the "dog-friendly atmosphere" is a big draw for locals.
"As soon as the dogs show up we bring them water," she said.
Asked if people complain about dining with dogs, Ms. Decker said there have been no issues with or negative comments about it.
"There are never a whole bunch of them here at one time," she said. "It's only one or two. And we have a lot of dog people here."
Mike Marlow's grandparents started Hunter's Restaurant downtown 64 years ago. Well-known as a breakfast meet and greet and comfort food haven, until recently Hunters had not been open after the lunch crowd waned.
"We started to open up at nighttime for the first time in 20 years," Mr. Marlow said. "We added beer and wine. People like to sit outside and have a drink and food."
"Other people had tables outside and I wanted them, too," he added, laughing.
Hunter's was one of four downtown establishments to go before the city commission in January gaining approval for temporary sidewalk café license agreements. The others were Cress Restaurant, The Grotto and Coffee Bistro 101.
Criteria included each sidewalk café accommodate a free flow of pedestrian traffic, and designated café areas being limited to sidewalks directly adjacent to restaurant frontage. Additional criteria set forth for umbrellas, signs and lighting were to ensure safety and allow pedestrians easy passage through those areas.
Mr. Marlow said the process was "pretty easy," just a matter of adhering to "what they want you to do."
Mainstreet Grill owner and DeLand City Commissioner Phil Martin called the city's restaurants and bars the "component of the downtown lifestyle that brings people out."
Recalling the days when the first thing restaurant-goers were asked was, "Smoking or non?" Mr. Martin said outside dining accommodations became crucial for restaurants when the state banned smoking inside.
"Outside dining allows people who smoke an opportunity to come and relax and feel welcome," Mr. Martin said. "If you smoke you don't feel self-conscious and if you don't smoke, you don't feel bothered by people who do."
Mr. Martin said the more choices people have the better it is for everyone.
"When you drive down Woodland Boulevard and see people outside having a glass of wine, petting their dog, reading a book ... businesses look alive when people are outside," he said.
Downtown businesses with existing sidewalk cafe agreements include The Abbey Restaurant and Wine Bar, Berryville Frozen Yogurt, Dublin Station, Manzano's, The Elusive Grape, Santorini's Greek Cuisine, Casey's on the Corner, Pat & Toni's Sweet Things, De La Vega Restaurante y Galleria and Firehouse Subs.
You could say Firehouse Subs, at 217 N. Woodland Blvd., is where it all began. Long before the hook and ladder came to town, there was a battle waged from the site. There weren't always tables and chairs out front.
But in 1996, when Scott Price moved to DeLand from the Keys and bought the building, he brought his restaurant, Scooters, with him. He also brought plenty of tables and chairs. He placed some out front, an unprecedented move.
Mr. Price, a former DeLand city commissioner and co-owner of Dick and Jane's Café at the corner of Rich Avenue and Woodland Boulevard said when he arrived there was "no outside dining at all" downtown.
"We were the first outdoor café and that's what started it," Mr. Price said. "I put tables and chairs outside and it sparked a big interest because they (other eating and drinking establishments) thought I'd have an edge."
He said MainStreet DeLand Association, which formed in 1985, approached him about working to create a city ordinance allowing sidewalk cafes.
So did other restaurant owners.
"Tom's Pizza ... he spoke on behalf of it," Mr. Price said. "That was nice of him to do since I was new to town. He thought people should have a right to do that on their own property."
It took several months, he said, but Mr. Price and other downtown business and property owners persuaded the commission.
"It (the ordinance) was voted down," he said. "I ran in after the meeting and told them we were gonna have a lawsuit and I said, 'I'm gonna have your citizens at my restaurant eating and drinking outside. Who are you going to arrest, them or me?'"
Mr. Price said the meeting was re-opened and the ordinance passed.
Daytona Beach has allowed outdoor dining throughout the city for decades, and has had a licensing program with provisions similar to DeLand's for more than 10 years.
Deputy City Manager Paul McKitrick said 10 to 15 businesses in Daytona Beach's downtown district are licensed to utilize outside sidewalks adjacent to their businesses, with good results.
"We are definitely seeing a renaissance in interest in the downtown area," Mr. McKitrick said. "Downtown got hit in the national recession, but it made downtown merchants pull together with new but effective marketing (strategies)."
Mr. McKitrick said the city and local businesses are doing a number of things to promote interest in the downtown/Main Street/ urban area, including the implementation of a new "doggie dining ordinance."
"When people come into town, they have so many choices of where to go," he said.