Sidewalk Cafes: What You Need to Know

Few things make a lunch or dinner out more romantic than sitting outside and enjoying the warm summer breeze.  However, because sidewalk cafés are built on city property—namely, the sidewalk—and can present an obstruction to pedestrians, these cafés are subject to special zoning regulations and special government clearance.  According to the New York City Zoning Resolution, there are three main types of sidewalk cafés:

1) Unenclosed sidewalk café: An outdoor seating area with removable tables and chairs

2) Small, unenclosed sidewalk café: An unenclosed sidewalk café that takes up no more than 4 feet, 6 inches of the sidewalk.

3) Enclosed sidewalk café: An enclosed seating area on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, constructed with glass, plastic, or lightweight metal.

Which type of sidewalk café you may build depends on the area of the city in which you’re located.  Certain parts of the city—particularly in Manhattan—only permit small unenclosed cafés, if they permit sidewalk cafés at all. All sidewalk cafés require a permit from the Department of Consumer Affairs, but enclosed sidewalk cafés must receive clearance from the Department of Buildings as well.

Regardless of type, all sidewalk cafés need to maintain a minimum clear path of 8 feet between the curb and the outer limit of the café (trees, traffic signs, and parking meters don’t count).  If a sidewalk is wider than 16 feet, then the clear path must be at least 50% of the distance from the building to the curb line.  Fire hydrants, bike racks, mailboxes, and benches all count as obstructions to the café is next to an intersection, the minimum is 9 feet.