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Sidewalk Dining Scene Booming in Astoria

By Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska | August 9, 2012 7:32am

ASTORIA — Dozens of sidewalk cafes dot the streets of Astoria these days, attracting locals and visitors from around the city.

But while the crowds enjoy sipping their coffee and eating food al fresco, some residents say their increasing numbers are hard to swallow.

Outdoor seating started arriving in the area about two decades ago, but in recent years they have been popping up in increasing numbers, especially on 30th Avenue.

More than 20 of the 53 outdoor cafes in the neighborhood — the majority of the 88 in Queens — are located on the stretch, which has a variety of Japanese, Mexican, Thai, Greek and Italian restaurants.

Broadway and Steinway Street are also lined with cafes, which have anywhere from four to 70 seats.

And Astoria also has more outdoor dining than the hipster enclave of Williamsburg, where there are 35, data from the Department of Consumer Affairs indicates.

Five more applications are pending for 30th Avenue, according to the data provided by Consumer Affairs for the four ZIP codes in the heart of the neighborhood.

“I think they are an important part of Astoria right now," said Dino Manikas, 44, a floral designer, who often hangs out at a Greek-American restaurant Athens Café on 30th Avenue.

"They give you a chance to be outside and they give you more of a European feeling. I just think it’s something different than being closed inside the restaurant.”

Deana Ventimiglia, 60, a retired phone company worker who has lived in the neighborhood for 35 years, agreed.

“I love them,” she said while shopping along 30th Avenue. “They keep this neighborhood vibrant and it’s great to see all these people having a good time.”

And restaurant owners also see the outdoor eateries — there are more than 1,150 in the city — as a boon.

Loizos Loizon, the owner of Avenue Cafe on 30th Avenue, said they have become an integral part of the neighborhood, where many residents are of European descent and the outdoor setting reminds them of home.

“Back in Europe, people like to sit outside and look at the sea or nature,” said Loizon, who came to the U.S. from Cyprus. “Here, we look at the streets, but it is better than nothing.”

But some residents say the al fresco dining scene is giving them agita.

When Patricia Schrader, a teacher and Astoria resident for 25 years, walks home from work along 30th Avenue, she says she has to slalom between various obstacles.

There have always been bus stops and street vendors there, she said, but in recent years a growing number of cafes have taken over a large portion of the sidewalk.

“It grows like a little tumor, they sprawled out all over,” said Schrader. “Sometimes the sidewalk isn’t wide enough.”

Moving around is especially difficult for people walking with a baby carriage or carrying bags. “Sometimes it’s difficult to pass through,” she said.

The number of sidewalk cafes in Astoria may not seem very high in comparison with those in Manhattan neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and Soho, where there are 239, or the Upper East Side, which has 125.

But for a quiet Queens neighborhood, 53 sidewalk cafes seems overwhelming to some residents. By comparison. Hunters Point, an increasingly trendy area in Western Queens, only has seven. In Forest Hills there are eight and, in Jackson Heights, there are only two.

Noise is another problem that some longtime residents say has accompanied the proliferation of the cafe, prompting complaints at community board meetings.

"It is impossible to sleep at night," Karen Afrides, 54, who has lived on 36th Street off 30th Avenue for 20 years, said at the last community board meeting in June.

"Why is our quality of life diminished because some people want to have a good time? It’s not our good time.

"We have to have our sidewalks back."

The Community Board, after taking neighbors’ complaints into account, issues recommendations on whether to approve the application for outdoor cafés or not, but it’s the city that eventually decides.

Lucille Hartmann, a district manager at Community Board 1, said the cafes “are lovely and bring a lot to the community, but there also has to be a consideration of the surrounding residents and this is one thing that the community board is concerned about.”

Sidewalk cafes are required to close at 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, and at midnight on all other nights.

“But they often stay out later than that,” Hartmann said, adding “there should be more strict enforcement on the times that they close.”

Local council member Peter Vallone Jr. said sidewalk cafes are “what bring people to Astoria to spend their money.”

He added that he gets various complaints from residents about bars and restaurants in the area. When that happens, he said, he calls the owner and 90 percent of them “will fix the problem.”

“If the music is too loud, they’ll lower it or they’ll put in insulation,” he said.

“If their employees aren’t closing the tables down on time, they’ll do that."