Eating hummus in a tent may not really sound like a big deal. But feasting on some of the best hummus inside a private yurt at Zahav, along with foie gras-stuffed baklava, pomegranate-glazed lamb shoulder, and crispy Persian rice in a five-course tasting menu, turns out to be one of the peak 2020 experiences of outdoor dining in Philly. Not to mention one of the most exclusive.
The menu costs $90 per person, and the reservation must be made with an American Express card through the Resy reservation app. Those two corporate partners paid for the 12 round tents with heat lamps dangling from peaked roofs constructed on the covered patio behind Zahav in Society Hill — as well as 12 other select restaurants across the country.
“We understand there are questions of privilege,” said chef and co-owner Michael Solomonov, acknowledging the selection as a yurt village site is both a national honor and a needed boost to business at a moment of existential crisis in the restaurant industry. “But there’s not one restaurant in the city making money right now. It’s a game of trying to lose as little money as possible, and employ as many people as possible.”
Zahav, which never reopened for indoor dining since the start of the pandemic, had a vibrant outdoor dining business throughout the warmer months with up to 70 seats on the covered patio behind the restaurant, serving as many as 200 diners a night: “It basically saved our company,” said Solomonov.
That allowed Zahav to retain 45 of its 73 full-time employees from prior to the pandemic, says co-owner Steven Cook, who noted that CookNSolo restaurants raised their minimum wage across the company to $15-an-hour four months ago by instituting a 20% service charge at all their restaurants. In January, they plan to re-launch an optional health-care plan for their hourly workers (salaried managers already receive one). The yurts, which seat a maximum of four, have reduced the restaurant’s overall nightly capacity. But expanding the size and price of this menu, as well as the longer two-hour time limit allotted per table, has compensated for the shift in a sustainable way.
“We’ll never have another opportunity to remake our business in the way we have during the pandemic,” says Cook. “There’s more sensitivity now (among the public) to what the cost of a meal is.”
Zahav has always been a relatively fair bargain compared to other elite restaurants. The menus at other Amex yurt villages range from $125 at Brooklyn’s Lillia and the Grey in Savannah, Ga., to $170 menus at both Fiola in Washington, D.C., and Frasca in Boulder, Colo. From a pure value basis, Zahav’s expansive menu of 22 dishes brought to the yurt atop big etched-brass trays is an extraordinary amount of food. And from the butter-glossed iron crock of Turkish hummus with fresh laffa flat bread, to the charcoal-roasted porcinis, smoked sweet potatoes with caviar, and crispy baklava cigars laced with cashews, poached quince, and an oozy core of foie gras (affectionately referred to as foie-klava), the meal overseen by chef de cuisine Chelsey Conrad was as delicious as any I’ve eaten at Zahav during its tenure as a four-bell destination.
The warm cups of orchid root sachlav and Turkish coffee custard topped with arak marshmallows for dessert, thanks to pastry chef Jennifer Grimsley, were also exceptional.
But this meal will be remembered as special by my family forever. Not only because of the circumstances of the pandemic, but because of how the ancient innovation of a yurt, a portable round tent popularized by Central Asian nomads a thousand-plus years ago, proves to be the ultimate outdoor dining shelters. They’re easily aired out and cleaned between guests, and these cozy mini-yurts built for four assure you’re not sharing potentially contaminated air with strangers outside your bubble. (Unlike many large tents I’ve seen that are essentially indoor dining rooms on the sidewalk.)
“They’ve done a good job of keeping the openings for the yurts askew from each other,” says Charles Haas, a professor of environmental engineering at Drexel University who specializes in microbiological risk assessment. He also approved of the prix-fixe format that limited interactions with staff. “Basically a private dining room in a tent. As long as people are only dining in their bubble, then this is a good solution.”
Yes, of course, Philly’s now also has inflatable igloos, clear plastic tents, mini-greenhouses, and elaborately designed sidewalk enclosures engineered with heated forced air that deep-pocketed restaurateurs like Stephen Starr have paid from $20,000 to $35,000 to construct. (Starr has built 11 such enclosures with over 400 seats at nine restaurants across the city). As expected, those with enough resources to keep investing in outdoor dining modifications have the best shot to survive the long, dark winter ahead — especially while the government continues to fail disastrously to offer the industry any meaningful relief. The many have-nots will need to survive on takeout, or do as many already have, and close for winter hibernation.
Against that bleak landscape, such a feast feels extravagant — but also hopeful. There was undoubtedly something magical about dining in Zahav’s yurt because it shows the possibilities of outdoor dining in winter. The unrushed experience was the closest thing to a special occasion meal I’ve eaten at a restaurant since the outset of the pandemic, and is the ultimate way to graze across the entire menu. And even the fanciest takes on modern Israeli food can feel natural in a tent.
“It’s warm and cozy and it makes us contemplate the future of what Zahav can be,” says Solomonov, who says the restaurant can keep all but one of its yurts. “Our job is to give people memories, to give them an experience. And the fact we can still fulfill that in this really precarious time is what our lives’ work is all about — and I feel good about that.”
Of course, Zahav’s yurt seats, available through the end of February, turn out to be nearly as coveted as regular Zahav seats. There are reservations for two to four guests still available for early and late seatings in both December and January. February reservations will become available starting Jan 1.