There’s a photo on the Merchant Ale House’s Instagram feed that looks like it was borrowed from a Brooklyn tourism guide.
It’s a patio filled with picnic tables and framed by brick walls, the paint wearing thin in patches to reveal red clay blocks like finger nails under a tired manicure. Steel girders wrapped in strings of glowing Edison lights just add to the post-industrial ambience of a space filled with people enjoying a pint and easy conversation.
But this isn’t a scene from any New York City borough. It’s a snapshot of downtown St. Catharines in the midst of a pandemic. And the Merchant Ale House’s creation of this stunning space behind the main drag of St. Paul Street, until now an ignored opportunity, is one example of the efforts to keep the core a destination, even in extraordinary times.
“That back end of St. Paul Street is such a huge opportunity. When I look at it, I’m envisioning there are patios scattered throughout the whole area,” said Margaret Josipovic, a project expeditor with the City of St. Catharines. “(The Merchant Ale House Patio) ended up being this incredible space. And hopefully it will encourage others to maybe try to animate that back end (of St. Paul Street) a little bit.”
Meanwhile, the front end of St. Paul has become more lively than it has been in months. That’s thanks to the city and Downtown Association closing the street to car traffic on weekends so restaurants can use the artery to create pop-up patios and offer something other than the usual pandemic takeout on the busiest days of the week.
The result is a makeshift, family-friendly pedestrian promenade with ample space to sip, socialize and meander safely, even as some restaurants have begun offering indoor dining again with the easing of COVID-19 restrictions.
All in, the effort has led to dozens of new and expanded patios approved throughout the city.
“The idea behind the closure was to provide the ability for these restaurants to put out patio tables, chairs and provide them with sufficient enough space to dine out,” explained Samir Husika, the city’s downtown development officer. “And then, (it’s) using the road allowance to provide pedestrians with a way back and forth through the downtown.”
St. Catharines’ core was enjoying some rare and coveted attention before the city went into lockdown with the rest of the province in mid-March. Condé Nast Traveler dubbed it ‘The Surprisingly Cool City Hiding in the Middle of Wine Country’ and waxed poetic about the former industrial city’s renaissance. It was home to noteworthy shops and some of the best dining rooms in Canada, including Dispatch, ranked ninth best new restaurant by enRoute Magazine.
To maintain that momentum in the throes of a global health crisis, the city created a website with all of the downtown takeout options for those who’d grown weary of eating through their pantry staples.
As the weather warmed and the COVID-19 curve flattened, that online repository grew to include patios and other unique ways for entire families the get out of the house safely, including at the Niagara Artists Centre’s Nomadic Cinema. The arthouse spin on the classic drive-in movie is a showcase of current and classic flicks paired with food by local restaurants.
Even parking spaces and alleyways behind buildings, once used as short cuts and traffic work-arounds, have become prime seating for dinner, like at Fiddler’s Pour House where street-facing sidewalks are too narrow for a patio when St. Paul Street is open to cars.
Farther down the block, Trust, a new beer bar and taco joint, opened in a former cinder block warehouse with a sizeable permanent patio off the alley between James Street and Garden Park.
“It’s inspiring people to think about more than just the sidewalk,” Josipovic said.
Mostly, it’s inspiring people to get downtown. Patios are full on weekends. Pedestrians are taking advantage of all the walkable space and stopping to enjoy a small plate at one restaurant while sipping a pint later on at another.
Plans for safe live entertainment along St. Paul are also being considered as the city pushes through the pandemic.
“People are happy to be out. I think people are really happy to be experiencing that social aspect that maybe they haven’t been in the last couple months,” Josipovic said. “But everyone (has been) very respectful as far as social distancing. It (feels) like a very nice social summer night would normally.”
Patios Galore and So Much More! Downtown restaurants, retail stores and services are open. St. Paul Street (between William and Carlisle) becomes a pedestrian zone on weekends.