Future of Outdoor Dining (FOOD) Study

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The County has initiated a study of current outdoor dining regulations and guidelines to provide restaurants in Arlington the opportunity to expand their outdoor dining space on both private and public property. Future engagement about the study will involve a broad range of Arlington’s community, including businesses, residents, and other stakeholders. 

How to Participate

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View an update on the FOOD Study - May 9, 2023 (PDF)

Temporary Outdoor Seating Areas (TOSAs) Overview 

During the pandemic, the County took extraordinary measures to make it easier for restaurants and bars to expand operations outside. Temporary Outdoor Seating Areas (TOSAs) are newly created or expanded exterior spaces at restaurants, bars, or cafés. TOSAs were established to help restaurants and business establishments expand outdoor seating capacity during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when indoor seating in restaurants was prohibited or limited. This included relief from some County zoning regulations and guidelines for private and the public right-of-way. 

Existing TOSAs will be allowed to remain in place at least until August 2023 as County staff work with businesses and residents to develop new guidelines for the permanent program, which are expected to be completed by Spring 2023. 

Learn more about Temporary Outdoor Seating Areas (TOSAs) 

Permanent Outdoor Cafes 

The Future of Outdoor Dining (FOOD) Study will examine which aspects of the more flexible TOSA program should be incorporated into Arlington’s existing approval pathways for permanent outdoor cafés: 

  • Outdoor cafés on private property are eligible for administrative approval per the Zoning Ordinance requirements. 
  • Outdoor cafés proposed within public rights-of-way (or other public spaces) require County Board special exception use permit approval. 

Applicable guidelines and regulations for outdoor dining may vary based on these variables. Given the public interest, outdoor cafés in public rights-of-way generally face stricter requirements. This approach helps ensure sidewalks continue to serve mobility needs of the public or recreation needs of those enjoying public spaces and aims to protect other community interests and avoid adverse impacts. 

The FOOD Study will look at lessons learned from the TOSA experience and  identify recommended amendments to the Zoning Ordinance and Outdoor Café Guidelines to strike an appropriate balance between commercial resiliency and public and community interest. Additionally, this study will identify and address other potential changes to how the use of public land for cafés may best be managed and seeks possible improvements to the approval processes. 

Certificate of Occupancy building permits outline the requirements currently needed for a private outdoor café per the Zoning Ordinance. Learn more.

FOOD Study Principles 

  • Safety - Outdoor dining will be a safe place ensuring access for emergency personnel and protection from injury, danger or loss for diners, pedestrians, cyclists and drivers.
  • Accessibility - The outdoor dining facility will provide access for all users regardless of physical limitations.
  • Equity - The operator of the outdoor dining facility will ensure the fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all people and that all restaurants and the community have input in the policymaking process.
  • Aesthetics - The selection of materials, colors, lighting and planting of the outdoor dining area will consider design and appearance to create attractive and well-maintained spaces for all to enjoy.
  • Adaptability - The design of the outdoor dining area will consider the surrounding character to ensure spaces fit within the neighborhood context and are compatible with adjacent land uses.
  • Restaurants as a Public Good – An economically viable food service sector is a critical component of sustainable and active mixed-use neighborhoods, which directly supports a strong commercial office and residential presence that drives Arlington’s balanced fiscal base.
  • Restaurant Recovery and Resiliency – A focus on expanded outdoor dining options with fewer regulatory hurdles will ensure that the food service sector can recover more quickly from pandemic-related losses and adapt to a longer-term “new normal” where indoor dining densities are reduced due to changes in consumer behavior.
  • Changing Nature of Use of Public Spaces – An understanding that changing consumer behavior and the realization of commerce as a public good requires a rethinking of the public right-of-way and privately owned public spaces are utilized in appropriate location

Public Process

County, community and commission meeting schedule 




May 9 Zoning Committee Presentation
May 25
June 29
Transportation Commission TBD
 June 5 Pedestrian Advisory Committee  TBD
 June 6 Zoning Committee TBD
 June 7 Arlington Chamber of Commerce  TBD
 June 10 County Board Meeting - RTA  TBD
 June 13 Economic Development Commission  TBD
 June 20 Park and Recreation Commission  TBD
July 3 Planning Commission  TBD
 July 15 County Board TBD

Letters Received