Raise a glass to . . . beer gardens.
With fall — and Oktoberfest — in the air, it seems an appropriate time to hail the proliferation of new spots to grab a beer or a glass of wine that this summer have enhanced an increasing number of public spaces in Boston and other communities.
Restaurateurs are less than pleased with the development. But delighted consumers aren’t going to abandon this largely warm-weather pleasure any time soon. It might be appropriate to refine regulations governing outdoor drinking spots, but beer gardens are nothing to fear.
Not only are they nice public amenities, but the public agencies whose property is being used derive some financial benefit — money that can go back into, say, maintaining the Rose Kennedy Greenway.
The enormously successful Trillium Garden on the Greenway is now in its second season, this summer joined by Downeast Cider’s space on Dewey Square. The Patios at City Hall Plaza has become not just a hot after-work spot but one of the city’s most Instagrammable locations for tourists.
And opening somewhat late into the season — Aug. 1 — were two new entries under a contract awarded by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation to Night Shift Brewery — one on the Charles River Esplanade and a second at Christian Herter Park. For the price of an $8 beer or can of wine (yes, a can, who knew?), patrons can play corn hole, share a pizza with friends, bring the kids or the family dog, or just watch the sunset over the river.
No restaurant in town can compete with that — and don’t think they haven’t noticed.
“Just because it’s ‘cool’ doesn’t mean it’s fair and equitable,” said Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association.
“There is a lot of concern in the restaurant community about beer gardens — because what started as a trickle has now become a tsunami,” he added.
He’s certainly right on that score. The season — usually from May through late October — has grown longer. There’s even talk of having a beer garden as part of a Winter Market should it land in Copley Square. And the investment, compared with the enormous risks of opening a new restaurant, is fairly minimal — fencing, outdoor chairs and tables, those all-important beer pumps, and those required port-a-potties.
But if every beer garden in the state closed tomorrow, it wouldn’t solve the broader issues that face the restaurant industry — like the long-acknowledged overbuilding, especially in hot locations like the Seaport District — and the fact that in a virtually full-employment economy full-service restaurants can’t get all the help they need at the wages restaurateurs prefer to pay.
“Boston should certainly be capable of supporting both restaurants and flexible hospitality options, if we want to be competitive with the civic amenities of other modern, thriving cities,” said Michael Nichols, executive director of The Esplanade Association, who encouraged DCR to look at the beer garden option by the river (previously, he led the Greenway Conservancy effort while serving as chief of staff there last year).
“We can provide an amenity to park visitors while deriving a financial benefit that goes directly back to care of our parks and civic spaces. That’s not competition for the restaurant industry, it’s further developing Boston’s entertainment options,” he said.
Of course, the beer gardens (with the exception of the one near City Hall) are not seven-day-a-week operations — even when weather permits. And thus far nearly all have been operating under special event licenses. They get approval to operate for three weeks, say, by getting 15 one-day licenses.
Now, there is a school of thought that the special event approach is largely responsible for keeping these facilities as trouble-free as they have thus far been. But it is, well, less than honest.
“I don’t think a ‘special event’ can be a sunset on the Charles River,” Luz said.
By next summer, city and state officials ought to come up with a more honest and upfront approach — one that recognizes the seasonal nature of these facilities and provides predictability but without ensnaring them in a licensing process so complex it will kill this burgeoning business in the cradle.
Boston has come very late to this party. But surely fixing a regulatory glitch ought not stand in the way of celebrating this addition to city living — preferably with something cold and frosty.
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