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A state requirement has put at risk the future of Calistoga’s three parklet dining facilities. Caltrans has banned restaurant table service at the parklets, which calls into question their utility to downtown businesses. 

Calistoga’s profitable experience with outdoor dining downtown is in jeopardy, as the California Department of Transportation has forced local restaurants to stop providing table services to customers using the city’s three “parklet” facilities on Lincoln Avenue.

Noting that restaurant owners in Calistoga were employing the parklets as extensions of their dinning rooms, Caltrans officials warned the city late last year that the service of food and alcohol to the parklet tables were violations of the permit issued by the state allowing the dining areas to be built on Calistoga’s main street.  Lincoln Avenue is also a state highway.

In recent weeks, the city notified restaurants of the violations and owners responded by shutting down table services.

Although a majority of the City Council expressed support for potentially making the parklets permanent in October, only Councilmember Kevin Eisenberg expressed strong opposition to Caltrans’ recent position.

“I think that Caltrans is being unreasonable,” he said. “I understand the rules, but they don't make sense in a city like Calistoga. I personally don't see the parklets being a value to the restaurants or the city under the draconian rules that Caltrans has.”

Councilman Scott Cooper said that while he remains a supporter of keeping the parklets, he doesn’t see Caltrans changing its guidelines to accommodate Calistoga restaurants any time soon, which will likely lead to the demise of the popular outdoor dining spaces. 

Gayle Keller, co-owner of Hydro Grill, which is adjacent to one of the three parklets and had been one of the restaurants serving customers in the seating space, said the state’s requirements are too restrictive. 

“It was fun while it lasted, but there's not much we can do about what the state wants to do,” she said. “As time went on, I believe we became more and more aware of what seemed to be a never-ending parade of restrictions.”

Ali Yildirim, owner of Bricco Osteria, said that he too has stopped serving customers outside to comply with Caltrans rules and that he doesn’t believe his customers will be interested in dining in the parklet next to his restaurant if alcohol consumption is prohibited. 

“At the end of the day, we’re in the wine country,” Yildirim said. “Everyone is traveling here to eat and drink our wine. That’s the source of our economy, It's a lifeline for the economy and for anyone in this industry, from the field to the tasting room. It’s everything we do.”

He said, however, that he’s still in favor of keeping the parklets.

“It creates an energy downtown,” he said.

Parklets in California were originally established during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown to keep restaurants open while complying with social distancing health guidelines. Since the pandemic ended, state and local officials have struggled to find a legal footing to keep them, despite their clear economic benefits.

Hector Chinchilla, a Caltrans spokesperson, said in an email that the agency had been notified that some Calistoga businesses were using the parklets as an extension of their businesses to serve food and beverages that included alcohol. The violation led to a conversation with Calistoga’s Public Works Department, which triggered warning notices to the offending restaurants in mid-November.

Eric Reichert, president of the Calistoga Chamber of Commerce, said he is continuing to work with the city and local businesses to ensure the parklets stay. 

“They're important because they add kind of a European, walkable-city, outdoor-dining feel that not a lot of the other towns in the valley have,” Reichert said. “We believe that they add a benefit to the community and to the businesses overall, that makes them worth fighting for.”