The patio at Via on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MAUpscale watering holes, small cafés, grills and everything in between…there seems to be no end to the growing variety of drinking and dining venues in today’s Worcester restaurant scene.

Take, for example, Sweet: this Shrewsbury Street restaurant has focused complimenting its dinner and desserts menu with its hand-selected, small-batch bourbons and whiskeys made by U.S.-based craft distillery—you’ll find its bar is devoid of most major commercial spirits.

But, how are restauranteurs distinguishing themselves and building their following to a new level? Not just by combining food and drink, but also focusing on ambiance to deliver uniquely branded dining experiences.

“It’s all about creating the kind of environment that people are not only drawn to, but will talk about and continue to come back to visit,” said Megan Nickerson of Ceres Bistro.

Craving a more modern outdoor ambiance? Try Ceres Bistro at the Beechwood Hotel. Its Pavilion is a tranquil green space for city diners, offering casual seating for more than 100 and a full bar; in summer, guests are treated to live music on Thursday nights. (Photo by Erb Photo)

Craving a more modern outdoor ambiance? Try Ceres Bistro at the Beechwood Hotel. Its Pavilion is a tranquil green space for city diners, offering casual seating for more than 100 and a full bar; in summer, guests are treated to live music on Thursday nights. (Photo by Erb Photo)

Like many area establishments, Ceres brings their best offerings outside this time of year, offering al fresco dining. And brisk business proves Ceres and many other establishments are doing the outdoor dining experience right.

Jenny Poulin, Bar Manager for La Scala, says that outdoor dining lightens the mood for patrons and staff alike. “Being outdoors just makes dining more casual, more fun. We stay open a little later, and people let loose a bit more than they would if seated inside.”

“It used to be that summers in Worcester were the hardest time of year. Everyone was away and our share of the patron pie just got smaller as the days got warmer. Now that we have so many independent restaurants offering outdoor dining along our street, we’ve created a lively, fun dining ‘scene.’ People really want to be here!” said Paul Barber of The Flying Rhino, which boasts casual, beach-themed patio seating.

Barber’s not exaggerating: take a quick drive down Shrewsbury Street on a warm summer night and you’ll see lines of people waiting to see and be seen at outdoor tables. “And it’s not just the evening hours — outdoor seating has given us an all-new group of patrons: the mid-afternoon, ‘let’s cut out of work early for a drink or early dinner’ set,” said Barber.

WorcesterScene’s 15 Summer Picks for Dining Alfresco this Summer:

Working with the city

It used to be enough for a restaurant that wanted to serve patrons alfresco to put a few patio tables outside on the sidewalk and call it a day. Today, restaurants are committing to making dramatic changes to please their patrons and capitalize on the outdoor dining opportunity: they’re sacrificing parking, adding pergolas, lighting, climate control, water features and more. Licensing requirements have at times slowed the process of renovations like this, but it’s clear that the Licensing Office of the City of Worcester is committed to working with members of the hospitality community. Their goal: to ensure that alfresco dining activities are carried out in a way which is in tune with a healthy, safe and comfortable environment for patrons and other pedestrians.

“They’ve worked closely with us over the past few years and there has been progress. “For example, early on we petitioned them to extend hours of operation in the summer and won,” said Barber. “And then last year, we saw 75 degree weather in March. We put tables on sidewalk and were promptly asked to put them away. We worked with the commission, and now restaurants throughout the city can put out tables as soon as it is safe to do so. So now we have the potential for a three-season sales boost instead of just during the summer months.” There is one big downside to dining alfresco, joked Barber. “It’s the lines! You’ve got to be prepared to wait on a nice night. Outdoor tables go quickly!”