Who to Thank for D.C.'s Sidewalk Cafes

The people who gave D.C. sidewalk cafes, remembered

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    NEWSLETTERS

    The owner of a longtime bedrock Washington institution passed away over the weekend, the Washington Post reports. Sarah Bassin, a Washington original and owner of Bassin's Restaurant, died at the age of 99. 

    Her claim to fame?  She opened the first sidewalk cafe in the District in 1961.

    Bassin's didn't just make sidewalk cafes possible, it made them legal. A gloss of Bassin's life reveals that the more things change in Washington, the more they stay the same.

    It was Bassin's brother, Harry Zitelman, a co-owner who joined after his sister had already opened the restaurant at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, who led the charge for sidewalk service in the District. Zitelman had had a taste of Parisian culture and looked to transform Washington.

    Washington, being Washington, resisted.

    Zitelman launched his campaign to open a sidewalk patio in 1959. Between 1959 and 1961, the Washington Post and Washington Evening Star published a number of editorials and reports on the problems that sidewalk cafes would create -- or the charms that the idea offered. The Post quoted a deputy police chief who said that "this type of operation would provide a favorable setting for ladies of easy virtue as they ply their trade up and down the street." City officials said "windblown foreign matter" would fly from plates into waiting rodents' jaws.

    Zitelman had an ally in D.C. Board of Commissioners chief Walter Tobriner. Another admirer of le joie de vivre, Tobriner would go on to become the U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica. In one 1961 episode reported by the Washington Daily News, Tobriner listened as various District bureaucrats on the vices that the sidewalk patio would expose to the District. At the end of the commentary, Tobriner said, reported with a straight face, "There being no substantive objection, the application is approved."

    Admire their dedication: Tobriner and Zitelman didn't stop there. A year later, the two had successfully overruled Prohibition-era liquor laws and introduced alcohol to the sidewalk cafe -- making possible the the strong gin-and-tonic pours District diners can enjoy (or suffer) at Trio's any day of the week.

    Progress notwithstanding, the teetotaling commissioners of the early 60s sound remarkably similar to the advisory neighborhood commissioners of the present day. Perhaps if we had listened to them back then, we wouldn't have to listen to them now. Since we got sidewalk cafes, we also developed a persistent rat problem and Sex in the City.

    Who's to say those guys were wrong?