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OUT TO LUNCH Alfresco dining gives the lunch crowd a 'psychological vacation'


You're slouched in your seat at the open-air cafe, sipping a Pernod, smoking a Gauloise, cursing that cad, Philippe, under your breath and staring existentially from behind dark glasses at the crowded rue before you.

Well, not quite. This being Baltimore, if you're at an outdoor cafe, you're more likely eating a salad on a sunny plaza in the middle of the day -- and the closest you come to existentialism is wishing the work awaiting your return from lunch would cease from being.

Welcome to outdoor cafe society, Baltimore-style. Mostly it's a downtown, lunchtime thing, although lately it seems as if every eatery from pizza joints to upscale restaurants from Little Italy to Towson are spilling tables out onto any available open space.

"It's like a psychological vacation in the middle of the day," says Cathy Schuster, a lawyer who frequently lunches alfresco on Hopkins Plaza and other downtown spots. "I think Baltimore needs more outdoor cafes -- like New York, where you can stop anywhere and there are several of them."

Ms. Schuster and her lunch companion on a recent day, Denise Duval, closed the umbrella on their table for maximum solar exposure -- then enjoyed a springtime that until this week has been pretty stingy with the sunshine and warm temperatures that lure lunchers outdoors.

"I don't come out until it's nice and warm," says Ms. Duval, an attorney who counts the cafe at the Baltimore Art Museum as one of her favorite outdoor dining spots. "I look for good food and sun and good atmosphere."

Observers aren't sure why there has been a sudden mushrooming of umbrella-topped tables on plazas and sidewalks in the area and can only point to the spreading-virus effect that occurs when one restaurant does something new and its nearby competitors notice.

"It's a great marketing device. When people drive by, they don't see a brick facade, they see a dozen people," says Alan Hochman, who until recently was director of business development for the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, a quasi-public management organization that has helped restaurants get the proper city permit to offer outdoor service or tables. "It's a relatively new and growing thing in Baltimore. I don't know what factor the recession has had, with restaurants trying to find new ways of marketing themselves."

Whatever the reason for the sudden proliferation, it leaves outdoor-experience seekers with a range of options: Hopkins Plaza tends to draw the suspender crowd during lunchtime, for example, while the sports bars across from Oriole Park at Camden Yard offer a more collegiate, eternal-Spring-Break kind of atmosphere before and after games. Henry & Jeff's on North Charles Street is open late for wee-hour noshers, and Water Street seems a popular Happy Hour destination, especially now during Preakness week when music and people spill out onto this cobblestone alley off Light Street.

And seemingly every neighborhood has corner or storefront restaurants that put out a table or two whenever the weather or spirit moves them.

"There's just something about being outside in the fresh air," says Tom Pizza, the aptly named owner of Angelo's, a Hampden pizzeria where customers jockey for the three outdoor tables. "To tell you the truth, our pizza tastes better outside."

People seem to relax more when they eat outdoors, says Connie Hewitt, catering director for Natural Classics Gourmet at 334 N. Charles downtown. On a nice day, the restaurant will pull its flower pots indoors and set up two tables under its brightly striped awning.

"It's sort of an advertisement for us. We used to be mainly a health food, vitamin-type of store, and people are pleasantly surprised when they realize we've changed the concept," says Ms. Hewitt of the switch to more varied lunch fare. "We get a lot of foreign people who are staying at the hostel. I was born in England myself -- my family still lives there -- and when you go to Europe, you see people at outdoor cafes even when it's cold out."

It's a less intimate atmosphere, but wide-open Hopkins Plaza is the destination of hundreds of lunch-goers on a nice day, according to Lisa Cornelius, manager of La Provence, whose plaza tables are available to anyone even if they don't buy lunch from the restaurant's mesquite grill and salad set-up. (The restaurant also has an outdoor cafe adjacent to its indoor operation, where fare off the regular menu is served.)

"You have to get out here early, before the 12:30 rush," advises Ziva Benarieh, a lawyer whose office is just off Hopkins Plaza.

"In our building, the windows don't even open, so it's just good to get outside when you can for lunch," says her fellow lawyer and lunch companion Steve Riddick.

The outdoor tables, which La Provence started putting out about five years ago, were a way of drawing more warm weather clientele, Ms. Cornelius says. The restaurant usually draws a lot of theatergoers on their way to or from the Morris Mechanic, but the theater shuts down in the summer, she says.

"The business people seem to like the idea of sitting outdoors on nice days, and it's a way of getting a fast lunch that isn't fast food," she says.

Outdoor cafes, naturally, are most appealing to those whose work keeps them indoors most of the time.

"I like being outside after working inside all day," says Kim Genua, an attorney enjoying a recent sunny lunch hour on Charles Plaza. "It's just nice to have a break and forget about things for a while. I frequently eat at my desk, so this is a treat for me."

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