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July 13, 2020

Outdoor dining invigorates Warrenton’s Main Street

Photo/Don Del Rosso
Homie Sehhat has spent about $2,200 to buy tables, chairs and canopies for patron seating in parking spaces outside Sunny Hill’s American Grill at 79 Main St.
File Photo/Lawrence Emerson
Patrons outside Black Bear Bistro on May 29.
We’ve basically almost made up losses for the last three months. So it’s been a tremendous help. It would be great if they made it permanent.
— Homin Sehhat, owner of Sunny Hills American Grill
By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Staff Journalist
From the time it opened about seven years ago, the downtown Warrenton restaurant more than covered expenses.

“We were profitable from Day One,” said Homin Sehhat, owner and chef of Sunny Hill’s American Grill at 79 Main St.

But business couldn’t be better since the town council — in response to the coronavirus pandemic — two months ago approved a series of measures to allow outdoor seating in certain parking spaces and portions of sidewalk, said Mr. Sehhat, 65.

The town also closed parts of First and Second streets to accommodate restaurants.

The town’s “Roll Out Warrenton” plan also temporarily relaxes zoning rules related signs and setbacks from property lines.

The changes, which apply to qualifying restaurants and other businesses throughout town, took effect Friday, May 14. With regional and even some national news coverage, Warrenton quickly attracted restaurant customers from the Washington, D.C., area — where those business remained closed another two weeks.

The Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Authority also temporarily relaxed its regulations for outdoor beverage service.

To comply with Virginia’s coronavirus restrictions, restaurants across the state closed their dining areas in March.

Mr. Sehhat shut his restaurant in the third week of March. Unlike many eateries, he offered no curbside pick-up or take-out service.

With extended hours and two new offerings — hand-dipped ice cream and fresh-baked desserts — he reopened the restaurant Sunday, May 31.

“It’s very important,” Mr. Sehhat, a trained pastry chef, said of outdoor dining. “We’ve been open a month and a few days. We’ve basically almost made up losses for the last three months. So it’s been a tremendous help.

“It would be great if they made it permanent.”

“Roll Out Warrenton” will remain in place until at least Sept. 1.

Using three parking spaces and a small portion of the sidewalk that front his restaurant, Mr. Sehhat can seat 28 people outdoors.

Many have discovered Sunny Hills because of outdoor dining, he said.

“It was really shocking to me because multiple” new customers have told him that they didn’t know the restaurant existed until outdoor dining started, said Mr. Sehhat, who declined to discuss the business’s finances. “Just the other day there was a couple here that said they’ve lived within a half-mile of Warrenton for lots of years. They never even knew we were here.”

Chef Todd Eisenhauer, 51, and his wife Elizabeth own the Black Bear Bistro & Brick Oven at 32 Main St.

“It’s helped dramatically,” Mr. Eisenhauer said. “Someone that’s not from Warrenton, driving down the street, they see this activity, and I think they’re more apt to stop and check out Main Street” to eat and shop.

He added: “I hope the town keeps it going. It’s going to bring more business for everybody — not just restaurants.”

Largely because of outdoor dining, the restaurant’s revenue has increased about 25 percent compared with the same period last year, Mr. Eisenhauer said.

Outdoors, he can seat 16 people at four tables in 2-1/2 parking spaces that front his restaurant and 28 on the place’s back patio.

Under Phase Three of Gov. Ralph Northam’s reopening plan, restaurants can provide indoor dining at 50 percent capacity — excluding bar seating — while maintaining 6 feet of social distancing.

Under those terms, both Mr. Sehhat and Mr. Eisenhauer’s establishments offer indoor dining.

Mayor Carter Nevill, 50, and his wife Kathleen own Carter & Spence, a gift and jewelry shop at 41 Main St.

Mr. Nevill described outdoor dining as an unqualified hit.

“It’s exceeding expectations in all points,” the mayor said. “This has been one of the most successful programs I’ve seen in this town in recent memory.”

He has heard no complaints about the conversion of Main Street parking spaces for restaurant tables, the mayor said.

To the contrary, everyone he has talked with praised the new use, Mr. Nevill said.

“It has been unanimous and through-and-through positive,” he added. “There hasn’t been any comment, ‘Oh, this is great but I miss the parking’.”

Between Culpeper and Fifth streets, Main has 46 parking spaces, excluding loading zones.

Of those, the town has marked off 14 for restaurants and other Main Street businesses, including the Warrenton Hobby Shoppe, Earth, Glaze & Fire, VonCannon General Store and the Virginia Gold Cup office.

Opening parking spaces for restaurant use gives shops a higher profile and invigorates street life, Mr. Nevill said.

“Whether we are busy or dead inside, the look is the same,” he said. “With outdoor seating, Main Street looks bustling, is a hive of excitement.”

The look and feel remind people he’s talked with of Europe, where outdoor dining remains commonplace, Mr. Nevill said.

“I think what we’ve seen is that when we devote our streetscape and create space for people, that it’s proven to be more of a benefit to our community, local economy and especially to our businesses,” he said. “I’d very much like this to become a permanent addition to the town.”

The 4-percent meals tax also represents the Town of Warrenton’s top revenue stream, budgeted to produce $2.5 million this year.

Her staff will work the town council on “options for making Roll Out Warrenton permanent,” Town Manager Brandie Schaeffer said in an email. “For example, do they want Roll Out Warrenton every summer for three months, or is this year-around outdoor seating?”

Planters and wooden barriers help separate parking areas from Main Street’s traffic lanes.

“We would need to discuss if it was year-round what would be installed for long-term viability,” Ms. Scheaffer said. “Main Street is scheduled to be repaved in the next year, so we are in a bit of a holding pattern as we applied for a revenue-sharing grant for Main Street upgrades, and (the Virginia Department of Transportation) is not making any grant announcements at this time.  The council will have to weigh the benefits of the grant and its implications to the plan.”

The town continues to get “positive feedback” to make outdoor dining permanent and has received a “few” ideas “that were very innovative,” Ms. Schaeffer added.   

To serve alcohol to outdoor diners, restaurants would need to meet numerous criteria, ABC Public Relations Manager Dawn Eischen explained in an email.

They include the relationship of the proposed area to the establishment, the dimensions of the outdoor area where alcohol would be served, the number of seats at tables, the type of food served and hours available, supervision of the proposed area, lighting, Ms. Eischen said.

Outside dining areas also require health department approval for food service, according to ABC regulations.

Taking an outdoor table for two, Chris and Carolyn Mothersead, of Warrenton, had breakfast Sunday morning at Sunny Hills.

Long-time regulars, the couple wouldn’t have eaten there if the restaurant didn’t offer outdoor dining, said Mr. Mothersead, 73, who served as Warrenton’s planning director from 2003 to 2010.

“That’s probably the only thing that got us back, got us out here,” he said.

In the spring, the Motherseads returned from a coronavirus pandemic-shortened trip to France.

Warrenton’s outdoor dining reminded her of Paris, said Mrs. Mothersead, 74.

“People in Paris sit outside all the time,” she said.

“It’s an urbanist’s dream,” Mr. Mothersead added.

Contact Don Del Rosso at or 540-270-0300.
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Scotiagirl · July 25, 2020 at 1:31 pm
Very hard on the handicapped. Hate the flies and the heat as well, not to mention the trucks and exhaust fumes.
Rover 530 · July 15, 2020 at 5:27 pm
If Black Bear is not protecting it's customers by allowing people to enter without masks it should be closed down until the owners can guarantee compliance. This is a public health issue.
Calypso · July 15, 2020 at 11:27 am
I LOVE the outdoor feel of everyone under the canopies along Main Street. Reminds me of Fells Point in Baltimore where the dining is all along the sidewalks in the evening...reminds me a little of Paris (:
AmericanPatriot · July 14, 2020 at 9:52 pm
Close of all vehicular traffic.

Including the delivery trucks.
Silii · July 14, 2020 at 5:54 pm
It's great for the restaurants and for those who wear masks. Problem is, if you have any breathing issues, you'll be sitting mere feet from car and truck exhaust, including large garbage trucks. Wasn't too pleasant on a hot day but not one of the patrons going into Black Bear cafe wore a mask, so we stayed outside but ate and left quickly due to noise/exhaust. Servers wore masks so that's a plus and the tables were appropriately spaced. I don't understand how the nonmask people think all the restaurants and shops will do a decent business when patrons refuse to wear facemasks.
jacksmith · July 14, 2020 at 4:45 pm
Start the day with a full menu of favorite breakfasts that expands through lunch and dinner to deliver a surprising breadth and depth of flavour. And you can enjoy all of that from one of the dining decks on Main Street. Micro Surgery Kit
Rover 530 · July 14, 2020 at 1:31 am
The present setup is good for the Summer and early Fall months. It is fortunate that the restaurants are beginning to recover. But, in the long run, it's not a good move for the town. Driving through town is a nightmare. Parking is at a premium in Warrenton and parking spaces were taken away. When cold weather comes, people are going to want to eat inside or eat at home. Historically, Warrenton has not been friendly to restaurants in the first place. It really has few choices and those are not fine dining quality. At least the establishments that are open offer employment to people who were out of jobs in the beginning of the crisis. The town has lost several eating establishments in this year alone and not because of the pandemic. Warrenton is not Paris. It's a little town in rural Virginia that people drive through to get to Culpeper, Fredericksburg and Charlottesville and beyond. "It's an urbanist's dream"? This is not an urban area and most county residents don't want it to become one. The mayor is enthusiastic but probably only to generate interest in his own Main Street business.
420ilovebugs69 · July 13, 2020 at 8:19 pm
do y'all really need to eat out that badly? no, you don't. not to mention this has made old town, that you're so intent on preserving the history of, ugly as sin.
also super interesting how people are all about supporting/shopping local now when just last year y'all were doing the bulk of your shopping at wal-mart.
Demosthenes · July 13, 2020 at 6:38 pm
Yeah, the transition of a few parking spots into an outdoor dining area is really nice. I hope it becomes a permanent change.
Linda Ward · July 13, 2020 at 12:55 pm
It has helped local businesses and that is a win for all of us.
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