Social Kitchen and Bar in Birmingham received recommendations for approvals from the Birmingham Planning Board at its meeting Wednesday, May 23, to allow improvements to its rooftop dining area with a new retractable awning, as well as improved greenery, new seating and painting of the exterior of the restaurant.
Planning director Jana Ecker noted that Social is one of Birmingham's original bistros, with seats in its interior, as well as seating outside in the via and on its rooftop, for a total of 150 seats. “They are not planning to change the number of the seats on the rooftop,” Ecker said. “Right now they have a cover, but it's not very large. This would be a much larger, greenhouse-type structure with lattice on the ends and retractable fabric.”
She said they were planning on adding five new floor lamps under the hanging area of the pergola with LED lights, although the photometrics would not be changed. Fans and hanging planters would be added. Existing Bradford pear trees in one area of the rooftop would be replaced with a planter, and a service door would be moved. New furniture would be added.
“There is no enclosure around this dining area; it's more of an awning,” she said. “The building department deemed this a building and a structure and will need to go through all city departments for approvals.”
Ecker said they were planning to paint the entire exterior of the building a new shade of green. “They are also planning some type of public art on the east part of the via, but it is not part of this application,” she said.
Designer Roman Bonislawski of Ron & Roman design firm in Birmingham said, “Social has remained a mainstay in Birmingham – it needs a refresh. I want to assure everyone it is not an enclosure – it's a pergola-style awning. We're doing linear style lighting along the pergola. There's no other changes. It's just dressing that doghouse.”
Social had run into controversy over the years by fully enclosing their outdoor dining area on the via with plastic Eisenglass for year-round use. They had also had continual issues with the city over dying greenery and using plastic greenery, which is not permitted in the city.
Mitch Black, owner of Dick O'Dow's on Maple, spoke up against its changes. “I remember distinctly when Social came before the board – the rooftop was going to be for private parties. These places (bistros) were supposed to be small, quaint places – I'm one of the few legacy (Class C liquor license) holders left – if there are bar stools on the roof, then there aren't 10 bar seats; there's 20. Tallulah had a private room; now it's part of the restaurant. Bella Piatti has more seats. At what point do we look at the original bistro intent? Look at Toast – their patio is massive. On our end, we're trying to compete.”
“A lot of these issues have been raised (by the planning board and city commission, which are reviewing them), and we are looking at tightening them up,” said Ecker. She noted that Social's application would be grandfathered in.
Social currently has 64 interior seats, 56 in the year-round via, and 30 rooftop seats, for a total of 150 seats – far more than the 65 seats maximum in the bistro ordinance.
“When the bistros come back, we should probably talk about enforcement,” said board member Bryan Williams.
“We really have a bistro here that has 150 seats,” noted board member Bert Koseck.
“On the other hand, they bring 150 into Birmingham when the city is making a lot of improvements,” said board member Robin Boyle. “A private investment that is activating that via, that we didn't do anything about.”
Board members voted 5-2, with Williams and Koseck voting against, to recommend approvals to the city commission.