On a sunny afternoon in downtown Merced, a group of friends enjoy lunch at J&R Tacos' outdoor seating on Main Street.
"When we bring out guests, we almost always bring them downtown for at least one or two meals," said Rick Dale, associate professor at the University of California at Merced.
Dale and wife Anne Warlaumont, who also teaches at the college, are having lunch with several visiting professors. The couple says they've lived in town for almost a year, and regularly enjoy the city center.
"When we want to go and have a drink or something with friends, we come downtown," Warlaumont said.
Dale said their friends are often pleasantly surprised with the cultural amenities the city has to offer.
"I think a lot of folks know that Merced's a relatively small city, and when they visit they're surprised by how sort of walkable it is, and how many restaurants there are down the strip."
Thanks to a City Council decision Monday, patrons also can enjoy beer and wine outside, the lastest sign of downtown's evolving entertainment-district identity.
Several people roll up on bicycles and lean them against a recently installed metal railing that surrounds the Mexican restaurant's sidewalk tables.
Gerry Reid, a 65-year-old resident wearing cycling clothes, locks up the bikes while his friends get an outdoor table.
"My feeling is there's a bit of a renaissance going on," said the almost 40-year resident. "I think maybe the advent of UC Merced has brought more young people into the town. It's actually more enjoyable to come downtown now, I think."
Since 2007, when a downtown steering committee was formed, development priorities for the city center have focused on entertainment and cultural activities. And with several entertainment-oriented businesses poised to open downtown, many see hope for a vibrant economy in the heart of Merced.
"I think, when we see other cities with thriving downtown neighborhoods, it usually is on upscale dining and restaurants," said Bill Blake, city councilman. "We all hope that (downtown) is going to become, and it has to some degree, the hub for dining and entertainment."
In the 400 block of West Main Street, a small- business owner from Fresno has been approved to open two venues -- a hookah lounge and dance club, as well as a bar called the Chandeliers Club.
A block away at 315 West Main St., R.C. Essig and Tim Williams, who own The Partisan, plan to open a beer and wine cafe within a few months called the 17th Street Public House.
Recently, Italian restaurant Fernando's went out of business. However, the city recently received word there is potential interest in opening a bistro at the location.
"We're still developing," said a cautiously optimistic Frank Quintero, economic development director for the city of Merced. "It's still forming itself as an entertainment district."
The city is hoping for more changes in the coming year, Quintero said, including finding someone to reopen the Mainzer Theater, and bringing in more apartment buildings.
"What you always need to have a strong downtown is a residential component," Quintero said. "We need more high-density multifamily opportunities downtown."
The extent to which Merced can develop a bustling entertainment center is an often-debated topic, with no shortage of opinions.
"I kind of feel the same way about Fresno," said Bri Pasley, 23, who works as a photographer's assistant. "They both have a good music culture and a good art culture, but it's just under the surface yet, like not enough people totally know about it or where to find it."
However, there's growing excitement downtown, said Nick Valdez, a UC Merced lecturer who's been living in the community for about five years.
"There are more and more people who have caught that wave and said, 'Yeah, downtown can actually be a really cool place for people to be, downtown can be a place where people are outside rather than inside their houses facing their televisions or facing the Internet,' " he said.
Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.