Patrons have lunch outside Eventide Oyster Co. on Middle Street in Portland. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Hilary Lefebvre of Falmouth took a big bite out of a brown butter lobster roll at Eventide Oyster Co. Her mother, Michela Gallagher, was visiting from Baltimore, and the two had already downed an oyster bun, tuna crudo and a dozen oysters at their small table on the sidewalk outside the restaurant. Lefebvre’s dog Beau sat at their feet.

It was 68 degrees on a rare sunny day in very early June, and the mother-daughter diners were savoring the nice weather, even though they were sitting in the shade and being warmed by a towering, portable heater.

Eventide is one Portland restaurant that often has customers waiting literally for hours for outdoor seating during the spring and summer months.

“Friends will come visit me from out of town and they’ll say, ‘We can sit inside,’ ” Hilary Lefebvre said. “I always say, ‘There are, like, three months of the year in Portland where you can sit outside. We’re waiting an hour.’ ”

Josh and Ariel Hopkins of Portland sit outside The Honey Paw in Portland with their dog, Sunny. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

As the number of restaurants in Portland continues to rise, so does the demand for outdoor seating, where locals and tourists alike can bask in the sun while slurping Maine oysters or sipping craft beer. Setting up tables on the sidewalk allows restaurants without private outdoor space to compete for customers who won’t dine out any other way when it’s warm enough or have their dog in tow — and more and more of them are taking advantage of that option.

The number of restaurants with sidewalk seating has more than doubled in the past three years, according to Portland’s permitting and inspections department, which issued 98 sidewalk dining permits in 2016, compared with 219 so far this year. Although disability advocates say it’s created complications for people who use wheelchairs, the number of complaints made to the city has been minimal. More insistent are the business owners who say outdoor seating is crucial to their bottom line, and some have had to look for creative ways to offer it.

The city is helping by starting a pilot program this summer for so-called parklets – wheelchair-accessible, raised dining areas in parking spots outside restaurants that don’t have access to enough sidewalk space for outdoor seating. The Portland Hunt & Alpine Club on Market Street was the first to apply for one of the five available parklet permits, and its application will be reviewed at the City Council meeting Monday.

In addition to creating an opportunity for businesses, community leaders like sidewalk dining because it generates a positive vibe in the city.

It “creates an energy that gets people out and about, even if they aren’t using it as a customer,” said Steve Hewins, president of HospitalityMaine.

And in dog-loving Portland, it’s a must. Lisa Smith of Portland was enjoying a small carafe of wine outside The Honey Paw recently while her very good boy, Walden, lay at her feet on his blanket, with his personal bowl of water nearby. Walden, Smith says, has his own Instagram hashtag because she takes photos of him on restaurant patios all around Portland. He’s the main reason Smith is pro-sidewalk seating, but time outside in good weather is a close second.

“It’s just nice to be outside and run into people on the street,” Smith said. “There’s a different dynamic sitting on a patio as opposed to a restaurant where everybody has chosen to be in the same spot. Even without the dog, my husband and I would sit every second we could on the patio.”

Arlin Smith, one of the owners of Eventide – as well as adjacent restaurants The Honey Paw and Hugo’s – said customers who love their pets are part of the reason he and his partners wanted to install sidewalk seating eight years ago. (They even host the occasional cat.) But as much as they love animals, it’s the bottom line that’s driven the desire to have sidewalk seating, Smith said. As soon as they added it, they saw “an immediate jump” in profits.

“We want our spaces to be inviting, and that’s a big part of it,” Smith said, “but from a business standpoint it’s 100 percent money-driven.”

Smith said Eventide and The Honey Paw (Hugo’s does not have sidewalk dining) probably bring in an extra $3,000 to $6,000 a day during summer months just because of the outdoor seating. “If you can have a patio at a restaurant in Portland, Maine, right now,” he said, “you’re winning.”

Smith said the restaurants still get occasional complaints about inaccessible sidewalks during the summer. The complaints come from other restaurants, he said, and from advocates trying to keep the city on its toes as far as accessibility for the disabled. Smith’s restaurants comply with the city’s guidelines but he admits they can’t police the sidewalk every second during the summer, when the wait for a table at Eventide can be 2 1/2 hours long and a crowd forms outside.

Under the city’s guidelines, sidewalk dining areas require a sidewalk that’s at least 8 feet wide. Four feet must remain open between the seating and the curb for pedestrians, wheelchairs and strollers to pass easily by. Barriers such as rope or chain stanchions must be used to outline the dining area. The permits cost $80, plus $2 per square foot of dining area on the sidewalk.

Renee Berry-Huffman, a South Portland resident and disability advocate, said some restaurants with sidewalk seating are considerate of people who use wheelchairs, as she does, but others aren’t as much, and it makes a big difference in places like Congress Street, where there’s already a lot of pedestrians, street vendors and bus stops.

“When you add all those dimensions together, it can be disastrous for someone coming through in a power chair,” she said.

Jessica Grondin, Portland’s director of communications, said the city typically gets five or six complaints a year, many anonymously through the city’s website. According to the permitting and inspections department’s records, 13 complaints were filed in 2017, followed by five in 2018 and three this year.

“We get them sometimes because people move stanchions out, and usually it’s the restaurant next door that’s complaining,” Grondin said.

Sidewalk dining is lucrative enough that restaurants will get creative to have it.

When Enrico Barbiero and Mauro Stoppino opened Pizzarino on Fore Street last August, they applied for a sidewalk dining permit but ran into issues. The sidewalk was bumpy, and sand from an adjacent unpaved parking lot washed down onto the sidewalk whenever it rained. This year, Barbiero (who also owns Paciarino down the street) called the city and asked if he could install a wooden platform that would provide an even surface and keep his customers’ feet out of the sand.

“He said to me, ‘Enrico, on private property you can do whatever you want,’ ” Barbiero said. ” ‘The sidewalk is city of Portland property, so you cannot put anything on the (sidewalk) that stays. It has to be removable.’ ”

So the restaurateurs hired the same contractor who worked on both restaurants and had him build a wooden deck, about 4 inches high, that seats 15 to 20. At night, after dinner service, the staff goes outside and removes all the tables and chairs, and lifts the deck up against the wall of the restaurant, where it remains overnight. At 8 the next morning, if the weather is good, they lower the deck, and bring the tables and chairs out again. To satisfy the wheelchair-accessible requirement, they made a smaller, separate dining area that sits directly on the sidewalk at the front of the restaurant, but on the other side, where the sand doesn’t reach. Health inspectors visited five or six times, Barbiero said, to make sure they were in compliance.

Asked if he needs the outdoor seating to compete with the other restaurants in the Old Port, Barbiero said, “Honestly, yes.”

“From my experience here in Portland, in summertime, during lunch or dinner when the weather is very nice, and it’s very hot, people love to stay outside and dine outside,” he said. “You can be empty inside and completely full outside. So it’s both. The business, of course, is very important, and also it’s just a little bit more you can give to the customer.”

Dan Talmatch, owner of The North Point, is upset because the city won’t allow him to have outdoor seating at his Portland restaurant. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

But there are some parts of the city where even such creativity doesn’t work. Dan Talmatch, owner of The North Point on Silver Street, had sidewalk dining at his business for four summers before the city changed the rules to require an 8-foot sidewalk from building to curb. When he had the seating, he had 10 outdoor tables. “They were full most of the evening and people loved it,” Talmatch said.

At first Talmatch was allowed to just close off the sidewalk, but eventually the city told him he couldn’t do that anymore. He’s tried several other ways to comply with the rules, with no luck. “I’ve run out of options,” he said.

Talmatch claims the city once considered widening the sidewalk and making Silver a one-way street, but that plan never came to fruition. “I would love to bump it out and have a nice, 13-foot sidewalk,” he said. “I would maintain it and keep it clean.”

Like Barbiero, Talmatch believes he needs sidewalk dining in summer to compete. He estimates that when he had sidewalk dining, his business saw a 20-30 percent increase in sales.

“This town is quite seasonal,” he said. “We’re OK during the winter but we’re really not making a whole lot of money. So the only way to succeed and get ahead, and invest back into the business is to have outdoor seating and make more money in the summer months.”

Lisa Smith, the Portland diner who enjoys eating outside, supports Talmatch on the issue. “I realize it’s being done for wheelchairs,” she said, “but nobody’s taking a wheelchair down that street anyway. Everything juts out too far; it’s too difficult already.”

Talmatch supports the idea of parklets, even though they wouldn’t work for him because there are no parking spots outside The North Point. “It’s good for business, it’s good for people, it’s good for the city,” he said, “but it’s not going to help me because the parking is on the other side of the street.”

Barbiero also thinks parklets are a good idea but won’t work at his restaurants either because he doesn’t have parking spaces out front. (Paciarino has spaces on the Cross Street side of the restaurant, but sidewalk seating isn’t practical there because it’s on a steep hill.)

Lefebvre, the sidewalk diner at Eventide, said while the parklet concept seems great for business, it also seems “a little weird. I don’t know if I would like to eat in a parking spot.”

Her biggest objection to parklets is one voiced by a lot of Portlanders after the city announced the program: “As someone who has trouble finding parking,” she joked, “I have mixed emotions about that.”