The heaters are coming! And that’s encouraging news. Because even though indoor dining has been allowed for months at reduced capacity outside Philadelphia (where envious restaurateurs finally got their wish in early September), it turns out many diners, like myself, still aren’t eager to gamble on eating inside a dining room where the risks of coronavirus appear more frightening.
“It hasn’t bounced back yet like we expected,” says Sean Weinberg on demand for the plexiglass-partitioned seating inside his Restaurant Alba in Malvern. “I couldn’t pay my customers before [the pandemic] to eat outside in beautiful 80-degree weather. Now I have customers who will only eat outside, even if it’s 90 degrees and muggy.”
“We’re going to hold off on [indoor dining] for a second,” says Corinne Bradley/Powers of Camden’s Corinne’s Place. “Better safe than sorry.”
As a result, some of the most inviting outdoor dining setups I’ve encountered have bloomed beyond Philly’s city limits, from the bustle of Phoenixville’s weekend pedestrian zone on closed High Street, where an intriguing new Greek BYOB, Avlós, has gained some traction, to the Corinne’s Place “oasis,” to the Flourtown backyard patio of Tamarindo’s. Owner Fernando Sauri is even building a pergola there for a winterized gazebo with plenty of heaters to keep the al fresco dining toasty when the cold weather comes: “Not everybody is ready to eat inside, but they’ll have a place to eat here.”
Opening a dream restaurant on Jan. 15, only to be shut down in March by the pandemic, was scary. And sisters Nikoleta Skartsilas and Katerina Skartsila feared they’d lost it all after investing everything they had in Avlós, the charming Greek BYOB that replaced Majolica in Phoenixville.
But a reopening for takeout revived their hopes in May. And now outdoor dining has brought a Zephyrus-worthy gust of fresh life since the borough began closing Bridge Street on long weekends for pedestrians only. With white wooden tables now beckoning from the wide brick sidewalk beneath Avlós' sky blue sign, and the scent of oregano-dusted feta in the air, one could mistake this lively corner, for a moment, for a glimpse of the Grecian islands.
That’s where Nikoleta, 38, cooked for seven years before returning with a mission to express the spirit of Cretan cooking. She’s finally doing it now with classics like dakos, a salad of barley rusks topped with grated tomatoes and feta and Cretan olive oil. Painstakingly hand-rolled grape leaves are stuffed with herbed rice and served warm. Beef patties called bistekia are intensely charred to caramelize their cuminy, minted spice. Deftly stuffed peppers and tomatoes are filled to the brim with crunchy rice.
But no dish calibrates my Greek chef meter like octopus, and Skartsilas' beast opened my eyes wide, its curling arms meaty, tender and crisped with char, then brightened with vinegared onions and capers over a silky fava bean puree. I’d return for that octo alone. But there’s much more to try: These sisters have clearly only just begun. Avlós, 258 Bridge St,, Phoenixville, 610-455-4110; avlosgr.com
Corinne Bradley/Powers couldn’t travel to an island for vacation this year.
“So I made my own,” she said. “I call it my oasis!”
Camden’s Queen of Soul Food, one of the city’s bright lights for her 31 years in business, has done something special by transforming a vacant lot beside her Haddon Avenue storefront into a tranquil refuge for outdoor dining. With ocean blue waves painted as murals on its long walls and a tented seating area leading back to a garden with a trickling fountain, “oasis” is the perfect description.
“Oh, this looks nice and sounds nice, too!” said a couple of diners, approving the Luther-mellow soundtrack as they strolled past tables meticulously outfitted with contact-free QR menu codes and mini hand sanitizer bottles.
Bradley/Powers hasn’t lost a step by taking her soul food mastery al fresco. The delicate crisp of her no-nonsense fried chicken is still one of my favorites. But then there is the cakey fluff of her warm corn bread, her fork-tender collards, pie-sweet yams and perfect mac ’n’ cheese. The chilled potato salad, touched with the right tang, is ready for an all-star picnic.
There are many dishes I’ve appreciated here over the years, from one of the region’s last stewed pig’s feet, to her tender oxtails, crispy catfish, and a tingly spice-dusted Cajun turkey wing. Served in sturdy to-go containers with hefty scoops of two sides for under $18, they’re a tremendous value. But I now have a new obsession: two tender fried pork chops smothered in brown gravy so good that I’d follow their platter anywhere. Corinne’s Place, 1254 Haddon Ave., Camden, 856-541-4894; corinnesplace.com
Sean and Kelly Weinberg’s wood-fired Italian in Malvern, Restaurant Alba, turned 15 years old in March as one of the suburbs' best fine dining options. And then came the shutdown. They rebooted shortly after for takeout and embraced a far different model focused on feeding the neighborhood homier fare, an effort rewarded by bristling business.
The restaurant still does plenty of takeout, and the breaded-to-order chicken Parm (pan-fried in butter) remains as a comfort legacy from that early pandemic phase that’s still so popular it’s now untouchable on the menu.
But the ability to reopen for outdoor dining this summer was also a godsend, says Sean. Not only has their bi-level deck with 24 seats behind the restaurant allowed them more business (now also augmented by 18 more inside), but it’s also revived Alba’s natural status as a special occasion destination, even drawing many new customers.
What those first-timers will find is an ideal combination of Sean’s two years in Northern Italy applied creatively to Pennsylvania’s best seasonal ingredients: Crispy pork belly atop risotto bursting with tiny Sweet 100 tomatoes. Hand-pinched agnolotti stuffed with truffled chicken in a buttery broth with leeks. Overnight-roasted pork and kabocha squash with a polenta-like pudding made from fresh-grated sweet corn. An oak-grilled trout fillet from the Lehigh Valley that practically levitates over raw escarole salad dressed with brown butter-toasted hazelnuts, blueberries, and lime. Not recommended for takeout.
So, while Alba still plans to grow its indoor seating cautiously, Sean is rooting for a mild autumn: “We’re hoping to seat outside until Thanksgiving.” Restaurant Alba, 7 W. King St., Malvern, 610-644-4009; restaurantalba.com
There are a number of worthy Mexican options along Bethlehem Pike, from Cantina Feliz in Fort Washington to the 10th branch of El Limón, to El Poquito just beyond the Pike’s terminus in Chestnut Hill. So, I can’t blame Fernando Sauri for aiding his cause with pitchers of margaritas, served gratis to his BYOB guests at Tamarindo’s in Flourtown. But this elegant six-year-old location of the restaurant Sauri started in Blue Bell 21 years ago has another intriguing draw: a sprawling backyard patio behind its historic building that, with the moon hung bright above its torches and light-strung trees, has an almost dreamy glow.
Sauri’s soon-to-be winterized patio might seem a long way from the tropical gazebos of his Yucatán youth. But his kitchen, one of the first in this area to seriously explore regional Mexican cuisines, remains one of the few places in our region to feature Yucatecan flavors, which favors fresh chiles, tropical fruit, and seafood. It can be as simply satisfying as the elotes soup, with hominy in a clear broth sparked with poblano peppers, or as colorful as scallop aguachile in a tart purple hibiscus tea with chiles.
The Trio Yucateco platter framed a grilled skirt steak with a pair of Yucatecan classics, a banana leaf-steamed tamal with smoky pork tinga, and also codzitos, a Mayan rolled tortilla dish similar to flautas that Sauri’s mom used to make with spicy pasilla salsa. Tamarindo’s most memorable dish, though, was an homage to Yucatán’s coastal riches: a big red snapper crisped in the deep fryer then encrusted in a parsley and garlic salsa tanged with lime. Tamarindo’s, 726 Bethlehem Pike, Flourtown, 215-619-2390; tamarindosrestaurant.com
You can throw rigatoni in any direction in Collingswood and hit an Italian restaurant doing outdoor dining. Bistro di Marino. The Kitchen Consigliere. Sapori. Il Fiore. Each has their fans and virtues. But I’m so fond of Joey Baldino’s Sicilian cooking at Zeppoli, I didn’t mind eating it in a mist of rain.
There are six tables in the little front parking lot at Zeppoli, which now also seats eight people inside. But I was especially charmed by the torchlit vibe backyard space, which, set off from a parking lot by a fence entwined with grapevines, figs, and tomatoes, feels like a private villa.
Zeppoli’s unwavering ode to Sicilian classics, though, does all the meaningful transporting. A basket of fresh focaccia and tomato pie segued to forkfuls of silvery anchovies — the same briny beauties that grace the Catania panzanella with late-season tomatoes. Airy spinach-ricotta gnocchi come snowed with shavings of caciocavallo. Ribbons of tagliatelle twirl in lemon sauce with salty prosciutto or shaved bottarga. Snappy links of sausage radiate fennel. Cannellini beans pop with the oceanic savor of head-on shrimp.
Seafood here is always fantastic, like the whole orata with wine and caper berries. But then there’s Baldino’s masterpiece, a Sicilian fisherman’s stew of calamari, clams, swordfish and shrimp piled high with Tunisian couscous in a saffron-cinnamon shellfish so deep that eating it is an immersive experience.