I ate a memorable dinner recently under a chandelier that dangled beneath the stars from a tent pole at Palizzi Social Club’s temporary outdoor garden. I can’t tell you where it is without compromising my host’s coveted membership. But the biggest secret revealed to me was not the close-held location of the private club’s al fresco oasis, where I devoured meltaway braciole and revelatory fresh spumoni. It was a realization that the true magic of our dining scene resides securely inside the hearts, hospitality, and imaginations of our talented restaurant workers — not the buildings where they labor.
The unprecedented move outdoors as a means of survival has pushed so many chefs and restaurateurs beyond their comfort zones that they’ve created some truly special new settings to present their art.
From gardens to parklets to cozy sidewalk cubbies, rehabbed vacant lots and reimagined patios, here are several outdoor dining spaces that show how adversity has not just challenged our restaurant scene, but also helped it create new beauty.
Not only did Chris D’Ambro and Marina De Oliveira shift the seating at Southwark outside to its back garden this summer, they moved the kitchen, too. So when you arrive for dinner and pass through the wrought-iron gates, you step through a haze of fruitwood-smoke and sizzling meats before taking a seat on the lush green patio.
A seasonal cocktail like the Dune-inspired Hope Clouds Observation (Glenfiddich, oloroso sherry, and lacto-fermented blueberries) is a refreshing reminder of Southwark’s legacy as one of Philly’s better cocktail bars. Beautifully crafted tortellini with foie gras in a ragù with foraged chicken of the woods mushrooms and snails nods to D’Ambro’s modern Italian moves at Ambra, soon to reopen for single-table tastings next door.
But that grill is the magnetic source of Southwark’s patio power, infusing the amazingly tender pork chop over peach mostarda, and perfuming the skewers of saffron-citrus shrimp and pork belly with romaine hearts dabbed in scallop XO. A crisply-rendered duck breast ringed by chanterelles offers a tease of the grill’s autumn bounty, while fresh figs bring the season home for dessert inside an upside down cake with lavender ice cream — delicious proof that dinner al fresco hasn’t compromised this kitchen’s ambition one bit. Southwark, 701 S. Fourth St., 267-930-8538; southwarkrestaurant.com
Hillary Bor and Ian Moroney leaned hard into takeout at their 15-year-old Graduate Hospital BYOB immediately after the coronavirus shutdown in March, producing as many as 100 dinners a night. With just 26 seats, it makes no sense — financially or for safety — to open for indoor dining at partial capacity. So they replicated their dining room’s rustic-chic look in a sidewalk streetery. With roomy pods built from 150-year-old reclaimed barn wood, curtained dividers, heaters and clear vinyl dividers protecting diners from the fumes of South Street traffic, this is among the prettiest, most sturdy parklets I’ve seen.
Moroney says the push for takeout (still available) brought his cooking in a more rustic direction. But he and Matt Sosalski are still creating beautiful plates, from soulful ribbolita to delicate grilled quail over aji dulce vinaigrette at my recent meal. Good ingredients popped thanks to simple combos and vivid flavors, like the salsa verde and corn vinaigrette that sparked a flank steak, or the fennel-infused tomato broth with chickpeas that gave meaty monkfish a Mediterranean flair. A maple panna cotta with blueberry preserves brought this three-course $45 menu to a satisfying finale, capping another typically great Pumpkin value. Pumpkin BYOB, 1713 South St., 215-545-4448; pumpkinphilly.com
Saba Tedla’s lively restaurant and bar brings a fresh take on Southern flavors to Cedar Park. And she’s extended the same stylish attention to detail that characterizes her elegant dining rooms to the seating installed along the Baltimore Avenue sidewalk. A tall pergola with spacious cubbies is shaded, fringed with greenery and partitioned with clear plastic dividers for comfort between guests — many toasting weekend brunch with mimosas as the trolley rolled by.
Booker’s, which offers limited indoor seating and live Sunday jazz, has many engaging personalities. But I’ve especially appreciated its carefully constructed outdoor setup, easily one of the best in West Philly. It’s well-suited to a sunny brunch of perfectly fried catfish and grits (with a Louisiana streak of etouffée sauce). The chicken and waffles and indulgent cheesecake French toast are also worthwhile, as are Booker’s salmon sliders and several vegan options, too, including black-eyed pea hummus and Buffalo cauliflower.
Reinvention has been necessary for many restaurants. But the changes were dramatic when Kensington Quarters reopened in September after being closed for six months. Owner Michael Pasquarello invested big in streetery seating out front while remaking the back patio into an all-weather oasis, with a breezy roof, heaters and garden of edible plants. But he and chef Nicholas Bazik also overhauled the restaurant’s concept.
Seafood is now the focus for a restaurant that once pioneered the city’s whole-animal butchery movement. It allows them to maintain their focus on local ingredients, says Bazik. And the Fork and Russet alum is excited to explore his seafood passion. His gorgeous fluke crudo with figs and an aromatic oil steeped with leaves from the garden’s fig tree makes a convincing case. So does a corn-crusted schnitzel of skate wing that rides atop dilled green halušky dumplings and a sauce Gribiche that pay homage to Bazik’s Slovakian roots and fondness for classic techniques.
There’s a delicious smoked duck dish, a late-night version of the famed burger, attentive service, and a smart drink list to remind you that Kensington Quarters' ambitions remain wide-ranging. But this latest version of Fishtown’s once-meaty standby definitely feels new. Kensington Quarters, 1310 Frankford Ave., 267-314-5086; kensingtonquarters.com
Justine MacNeil and Ed Crochet turned to gelato to help ride out the first months of the pandemic at Fiore in Queen Village. MacNeil, the former pastry chef at New York’s Del Posto, was cranking out inspired renditions of salted caramel, Rocky Road and other wonders at a rate of 400 pints a week.
It was just the first of several initiatives they launched to survive without the benefit of their 80-plus indoor seats. Pizza Saturdays. Weekend pastries (pumpkin latte-stuffed bomboloni? Yes!) Cocktails to go. Sunday supper kits.
“The mental stress is constantly gnawing,” admits Crochet.
Their embrace of outdoor dining, however, with 40 seats wrapping their glassy parkside building along Front Street, has been a blessing. It’s a pleasure to taste Crochet’s superb seasonal pastas again, from ravioli with Bartlett pears and mascarpone, to gnocchi tanged with Pianello tomatoes, and fettuccine in charred scallion sauce with smoky bacon. Fritters are studded with end-of-season corn and chilies. Pristine swordfish, marinated in fennel and yogurt, is stellar beside pole beans splashed with punchy colatura.
Tents and heaters are rising soon to extend Fiore’s al fresco season, as they remain reluctant to begin indoor dining. But cold weather won’t deter MacNeil’s gelato genius. I demolished a pint of her maple-brown butter flavor recently and can attest: It is still the magic we need to keep smiling. Fiore, 757 S. Front St., 215-339-0509; fiore-finefoods.com and on Instagram
Alma del Mar is a charming 50-seater inside the narrow space that was once George’s sandwich shop. But they’ve also transformed the vacant lot next door into a festively tented patio strung with colorful banners and murals with poems honoring South Philly’s Mexican community.
The menu is brunchy by day with waffles, huevos rancheros and a molletes sandwich. But dinner is when the family’s fish market pedigree shines. The crab tamal is one of the most distinctive items. But I was especially impressed by the simplest dishes elevated by fresh ingredients, careful cooking and bold flavor boosts. The branzino looked plain but crackled with garlicky savor. The red snapper, though, was my favorite, glazed in rusty orange achiote marinade that glowed with a tangy spice that tasted like warm sunshine. Alma del Mar, 1007 S. 9th St., 215-644-8158; almadelmar.net
I don’t often revisit a Jersey Shore restaurant after summer. But Setaara in Atlantic City is a worthy exception. I savored the Afghan cuisine we got for takeout in June, and have been thinking about the juicy kebabs and pyramid-shaped mantu dumplings since. Chef Homa Bazyar, partnered there with nephew Abdulla Panah, is a very good cook.
But Setaara’s evocative space also captured my imagination. Not just the Middle Eastern alcove booths and minaret-decked entrance across from White House Subs. I’ve also been transfixed by the elaborate, multistory courtyard inspired by a Moroccan riad that’s risen in Setaara’s backyard and featured on Instagram. The tiered arches ringing a fountain filled with rose petals, and a third-floor deck eventually to be topped by a retractable glass roof.