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Mozart's Lake Austin patios
(Emma Freer)

The patio at Mozart's last weekend.

Stuffed with cheese, pineapple and pork, the nationally renown gringa taco at Simon Madera's Taco Flats restaurant is a popular item for the Mexico City-inspired eatery—but these days, that really depends on where it's being served.

At Madera's newer location in Clarksville, business from customers is "on fire," he said. At the original Burnet eatery, not so much.

The difference? The Clarksville spot has a patio.


"I'm talking to the landlord [on Burnet] now about adding a patio to the front," Madera said. "I think it's going to be the only game in town this summer."

Under the ever-changing patchwork of pandemic-era state rules governing eateries in Texas, restaurants that sell more food than alcohol may open their inside dining rooms for table service at just 25% capacity.

But for the patios and outdoor seating? The sky's the limit, as long as social distancing norms are enforced.

Al fresco dining is not exactly a tough sell in Austin, which gets three more weeks of sunny days than the national average and has a city ordinance protecting Austinites' right to bring dogs onto patios.

And now, it offers what may be the quickest path to recovery for Austin's struggling restaurants as state leaders grapple with containing the spread of coronavirus and keeping the economy healthy.

There's no table service yet at Taco Flats, but customers at the Clarksville restaurant and at Madera's food truck, La Holly, on the East Side buy food to go and then eat it on the patio rather than make the drive, tacos cooling in their bags, to the same home table they've been confined to for nearly two months.

The Burnet location, opened in 2014, was busier earlier in the season; now it's lagging 30% behind Clarksville, which has only been open since October.

"Because we don't have the patio there, it's declining," Madera said.

Austin mom Leslie Leal-Gauna and her family anxiously ventured out on Mother's Day for the first time since March to have lunch on the patio at Matt's El Rancho, their family's favorite "special occasion restaurant."

They felt safer sitting outside than indoors. They appreciated the single-use menus on placemats, sealed silverware and secluded seating.

"We sat there and said, 'This is one of the most normal days we've had in months,'" she said.

Patios are busy all over town. At the Hula Hut on Lake Austin, customers on a sunny Mother's Day endured wait times up to an hour. Next door at Mozart's, tables were full and spaced more than six feet apart.

Left out of this trend are the restaurants, like Nightcap near downtown, which make more on booze than on food—which means they are still not allowed to open for table service.

"We have a huge 900-square-foot patio, but we cannot use it," frustrated Nightcap owner Christin Rowan said. "People could legit walk in the front door, place their order at the bar, grab their drink and then sit outside and get texted when the food is ready. Super contactless."

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