Subin Yang

With spring well underway, what better time to visit the topic of sidewalk seating etiquette, when everyone we know is taking to the streets for some al fresco lunches and nightcap cocktails?

This topic shouldn’t be controversial—and in the grand scheme of things, it’s not. However, I’ve spoken with a couple of restaurateurs who worry that if patio etiquette is violated, they could be fined, or worse, lose their cafe sidewalk seating permit altogether.

Here’s how it works: If a restaurateur wants to offer sidewalk seating, they have to fill out an application with the Portland Bureau of Transportation. The one-time intake fee is $250, which must be paid upfront. After that, the city will send an inspector to the restaurant, where they’ll measure the linear feet of all outdoor tables. For that first year, the restaurateur will agree to pay $100, plus $12 per linear foot to the city. For each subsequent year, a renewed permit will cost them $100, plus $5 per linear foot.

Since you’ve gotta spend money to make money, that certainly seems fair—so what are these restaurateurs worried about?

According to one owner I spoke with, they’re concerned that a small group of people will want to turn two-top tables into a joint four-top.

Of all the confusing rules and policies restaurants institute, this one bewilders and, understandably, frustrates customers most. After all, it’s not an unreasonable request, right?

Well, according to city code, outdoor seating permits are only granted when a sidewalk is at least eight feet wide, and the business can provide a clear pedestrian zone. When a pair of two-top tables tries to turn into a four-top, their new seating arrangement eats into that pedestrian zone, and can ultimately lead to complaints to the city.

According to PBOT’s Director of Communications and Public Involvement John Brady, most complaints are reported by citizens, but inspectors who stumble onto a violation can also cite the offending business. And that’s where things can get sticky.

“If the violator has a permit, we do issue warnings,” says Brady. “However, if the permittee has three violations within a year, their permit is revoked and they’re subject to citations.”

The restaurateurs I spoke with say this issue has led to some unhappy customers who were simply unaware of the rule, and the fact they were putting the future of these outside tables in jeopardy. They’re not mad; they just wish more customers knew about the city’s code, as well as its enforcement and repercussions. 

There are a couple more outdoor seating rules guests should consider, both of which are no-brainers—but they get violated more often than you think (even by food writers who have years of serving experience).

For example, never leave a cash tip at a sidewalk table. I learned this the hard way after dropping a cash tip on an outdoor table several years ago, and then seeing someone swoop in and snatch it up like a peregrine falcon diving at a common street pigeon. That was my bad, because I’m well aware that one of Portland’s most beloved pastimes is stealing other people’s shit.

Another rule to remember is always, always, always ask your host or server if it’s okay for you to sit outside. The request isn’t about permission, as much as letting them know you’re there. Self-seaters are often ignored if the server can’t see them.

A friend of mine recently shared an incident in which a man stormed into her restaurant to complain that he and his dining companions had been ignored for 30 minutes. When she went out to inspect the matter, she noticed that he and his friends were seated at the table of a nearby coffee shop, which had closed for the night.

The takeaway? Always ask. It never hurts, right? And never, ever, leave cash on a sidewalk tabletop. The server, FWIW, told me at the time that the person who snatched her cash probably needed it more than she did—which is why I continue to return to this restaurant... and tip well.