By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Oct 03, 2007 at 5:42 AM

Outdoor patios have become staples of today's successful Milwaukee restaurants and bars. Up until a few years ago, however, a street-side table Downtown was as rare as a July snowstorm.

It wasn't that outdoor dining was illegal, but it was hard enough to get the necessary permits that virtually no restaurateur could make it happen.

"It was effectively a ban, though it didn't say in the ordinance that outdoor dining was prohibited," says former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, who is now the president of the Congress For The New Urbanism in Chicago. "But the effect of the way the regulation was administered, it was."

Third District Ald. Mike D'Amato says the concept was so scarce that when he first took office in 1996, the only restaurant he knew of with patio dining was the old La Casita on Farwell Avenue.

D'Amato says that getting a permit for outdoor dining was far too challenging for most business owners.

"When you allow the Department of Public Works to dictate what happens without any vision, they will dictate to the letter of the law," he says. "Not until the policy makers stepped in did this change."

According to Norquist, the health department was a stumbling block in getting diners outdoors.

"They had concerns that food outside was somehow unsafe," says Norquist.

For Department of Public Works Permits & Communications Manager Cecilia Gilbert, it was more about a lack of precedent and procedure.

"We really didn't even have things on the books to allow for it," says Gilbert. "You had to get a special privilege. A lot of people saw that (outdoor dining) was popular, especially with a short summer season, when places started to build decks. Louise's Trattoria (on Jefferson Street near Cathedral Square Park) was one of the early ones to do permanent seating. It just kind of grew (from there)."

The topic even ruffled some feathers between business owners and the area's summer festivals.

"It was an issue that at some point became a little bit divisive, because people were saying the ethic festivals and Summerfest and State Fair were taking away business," says Beth Nicols, executive director of the Milwaukee Downtown, Business Improvement District 21.

But trips to Italy and Boston helped D'Amato and others in the City come to the conclusion that outdoor dining is both "vibrant and exciting."

Says D'Amato, "We went to Boston and were walking through Faneuil Hall. It was early December and people were sitting outside drinking coffee. They didn't allow the inclement weather to bother them."

And in Italy, sidewalk dining is everywhere.

"It's fairly simple," says D'Amato. "Both the mayor and I looked at this like a European model, where restaurants are as much a part of the public realm as they are the private realm."

"It's pretty crowded," adds Norquist. "But it's 'fun crowded.'"

Norquist describes the eventual change as logical process.

"We had some restaurateurs who were interested in having outside dining, and they were having some resistance. I just asked questions, talked to the Health Department and the Public Works director at the time, and we came up with a way to relax the barriers."

By the year 2000, permit laws were changed in the city, making it easier for business owners to get outside seating. Lawmakers made a few minor tweaks to the code, making sure that there's five feet of space between the sidewalk and the street, allowing for pedestrians to get through. Additionally, restaurants must take into account access for the disabled, and D'Amato admits that his office occasionally sees complaints.

"It was very visionary, and it was really Norquist's initiative that began to promote 'al fresco' dining, and it required some changes within City regulations and zoning," says Nicols. "Though there were some challenges internally, because once ordinances are in place, it takes a little time to overcome them. Thankfully, the administration was very visionary."

Overall, D'Amato says dining "al fresco" makes Milwaukee a better place.

"Allowing for outdoor dining and encouraging it has made us a far more attractive place to live, work and play. It's a sign of an exciting city when you drive by or walk by businesses with busy streets," says D'Amato.

"We didn't have an environment that was conducive for 'al fresco' dining," says Nicols. "So when summer was upon us and everyone wanted to be outside, these restaurants were no longer doing business. Instead of clustering activities and events and building excitement like in Jazz in the Park, everybody would be outside and all of the bars and restaurants inside would be dead. Unless it was raining."

Now, says D'Amato, restaurant owners must consider outdoor dining, not just in the summer, but in the fall and even into the winter. For some restaurants, like Café Brucke, that includes leaving blankets out for customers. And the ultimate example is Trocadero, with its four-season, heated patio.

"We have transformed the city to the point where it's almost economically required to have outdoor dining to be economically viable," says D'Amato.

"If you want to be successful, you do," adds Nicols.

Gilbert says the process to get outdoor seating is much more streamlined now than it used to be.

"We ask for diagrams and certificates of insurance. It evolved over the years to become more sophisticated," she says.

Norquist says the regulations opposing outdoor dining were common in Midwestern cities at the time, but the evolution toward creating a city that's more friendly to dining 'al fresco' actually ties into the concept of "new urbanism."

"We think that the purpose of the street is multi-dimensional," he says. "The more complex you make it, the more value it has. If the street is just a traffic sewer and the only purpose is moving vehicles, you can't have much enjoyment."

Norquist points to Bluemound Road in Brookfield as an example of how sidewalk dining couldn't work, and that, he says, is a detriment to the area. He says in that respect his administration was successful in making Milwaukee a more livable city.

Says Norquist, "The idea was to add value -- it's not any more complicated than that."

"By opening those businesses on to the streets, it really was a win-win for everyone involved," says Nicols.

Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.