"Why would you want to eat inside on a night like this?" Caroline Dobrzynski of East Brunswick asked.
Indeed. While sitting at a table outside of Stage Left: An American Cafe on the most beautiful, most magical night of the summer, one can only assume the question is rhetorical.
Outdoor dining is a summer pleasure, but it's a lot like the conjunction of three planets in the night sky. When they all line up perfectly at the right moment, it's a spectacular experience. When they don't, it's no big whoop.
With outdoor cafes, it's a matter of the weather, the scenery, the company and the food. Everything came together perfectly on the August evening Caroline and her husband, John, dined in the great outdoors across from Monument Square in downtown New Brunswick.
The air was clear and cool after more than two weeks of temperatures in the 90s. "We drove here with the top down on our car," Caroline said.
A breeze fanned the car exhaust fumes away from the eight tables outside Stage Left, which is on Livingston Avenue, next to Crossroads Theatre. White Christmas lights were strung on the trees and shrubs that decorate the fenced-in outdoor cafe.
Music was courtesy of some crickets, who played their chirping sets for 30 seconds or so, took a break, then began it all over again.
The Dobrzynskis, who have grown children, looked like a pair of newlyweds.
If Caroline wasn't so busy gazing into her husband's eyes, she could have seen the fountain on Monument Square and the ornate exterior of the Brunswick Hotel down the block on Livingston Avenue.
If John would have peered around a tree he might have seen the stained glass windows of United Methodist Church on George Street.
"Seeing the flowers. .. it's romantic," Caroline said.
As for the nearby traffic, "I don't even know it's there, " she said.
Outdoor cafes are so common in Paris and Rome they're practically a cliche. They're the places where the beautiful people go to see and be seen. They're the place to people-watch. To look casual and sophisticated, And, oh yes, the place to get a drink, or a simple meal.
Closer to home, Manhattan has become thick with patio dining. And while several restaurants in Central Jersey have alfresco dining of some kind, Stage Left is one of the few to have a true outdoor cafe fronting a real live, busy downtown street.
"You walk inside a place and it doesn't matter what time of the day it is. But outside you're part of the summer," said Jim Dickey of New Brunswick, who stopped by Stage Left with Kerry Deinzer of Metuchen for a drink.
"The scenery ... we were just talking about it a little while ago. The hotel, it's a beautiful building," said Dickey, adding that the entire area around Monument Square is well maintained.
The couple got their first taste of outdoor dining not on a summer evening, but on a November night when the temperatures were balmy enough for Stage Left to seat people outside. After that, they were hooked.
"Eating outside is certainly a draw," said Dickey.
The Dobrzynskis are no strangers to dining outdoors.
They just returned stateside from a trip to St. Petersburg, Russia; Copenhagen, Denmark; and Stockholm, Sweden. They dined at outdoor restaurants each of their last five nights in Stockholm to get a better sense of place.
"You get to see more of what the people are like. When you go to a hotel (restaurant), it's the same place wherever you are. It could be anywhere," Caroline said.
"I think the food tastes better outside," said her husband, who owns Eighteen Lumber on Route 18 in East Brunswick.
The outdoor cafe at Stage Left is not permanent. The tables and chairs are stored inside, then taken out each evening weather permits. Tables are set formally, with linen cloths, china, glassware and candies. The menu is the same as it is inside.
Patrons can choose to eat indoors or out, but some people come specifically to dine outside, according to Mark Pascal, co-owner of the restaurant.
The Dobrzynskis go out to dinner most nights, but rarely on the weekends. They love dining out so much they once went to the acclaimed Striped Bass in Philadelphia when Caroline was on crutches with a broken ankle. In addition to enjoying Stage Left's patio, they frequent the outside courtyard at the Church Street Trattoria, just a few blocks away.
Stage Left and the Church Street Trattoria are not the only restaurants in the city serving food and drink outside. The Frog and The Peach has an awning-covered patio, Old Bay has an outdoor courtyard, and Old Man Rafferty's has tables set up in a side alley. La Cucina in Somerville also offers outside seating. And one of the most well-known outdoor dining spots can be found at Sir John's in North Brunswick. The view of Farrington Lake from the patio is sublime.
Dave Van Overeem and Martin Kunz took a table outside Stage Left by happenstance. The two men--Van Overeem is from Los Angeles and Kunz is from San Francisco--work for a company headquartered in Pohatcong and were having dinner in New Brunswick before leaving for home the following day.
They were walking on George Street when they saw the tables set up outdoors, Van Overeem said. While the opportunity to dine outside was a factor in their choice of restaurants, a look at the menu scaled the decision, he said.
"I wouldn't go someplace just because it's outside," Kunz said while sipping a beer.
"It's kind of rare that all of the things come together in one place," Van Overeem said.