Are you cool enough to eat out this summer? I’m not just talking about the temperature of your forehead, which may be tested with a laser before you’re granted entry to the garden of dining delights. There are new responsibilities to deal with. Online wait lists. Busing your own table. Remembering to mask up any time you stand.
You know what? I’m cool with that. Because dining out during this pandemic is a privilege, not the spontaneous impulse we once took for granted. When restaurants and diners take safety protocols too casually it makes me uncomfortable. On a recent evening I hungrily drove across town — through busy Center City corridors, plus a failed kebab mission to Northeast Philly — before we gave up and took home pizza. (Happy ending, Tacconelli’s!)
Thankfully, I’ve had many successful evenings, too, where crowds were managed and we relaxed because restaurants let patrons know there are rules, or there’s no dinner. I appreciate the owners’ and servers’ risk, so I go prepared to tip more generously. (Times are tough, but I’m eating out less frequently, so, if you can afford it, 25% should be the new 20%.) Here are several restaurants that are doing it right.
The sprawling dream garden behind Suraya, with its trickling fountain, mosaic-tiled pathways, and shady grove of Persian ironwoods, was still under construction when this Fishtown palace of Lebanese cuisine opened in 2018 and became an instant hit. But with Suraya’s evocative interior currently closed, that now-flourishing garden has become a game-saving oasis of outdoor fine dining.
But first, you have to pass a laser-gun temp check at the entrance just beyond its gates on the Front Street side of the property. And considering how far in advance we’d reserved (some things never change), I was relieved we all registered below the 100.4-degree threshold.
That anxiety was instantly soothed by the garden’s calming beauty, with scattered tables illuminated by lanterns and generously spaced into secluded nooks. There are 80 seats, but there could easily be more.
All the better for a family-style “Taste of Suraya” feast of charcoal-kissed kebabs, stuffed grape leaves scattered with tangy barberries, and a parade of colorful mezze ready to be scooped with fresh pitas still puffing steam from the oven. There was baharat-scented lamb shoulder and crisp-skinned branzino over spicy harra pepper sauce thickened with walnuts and cuminy tomatoes. There were glasses of Lebanese beer tanged with sumac and za’atar; a cocktail spiked with anise arak. And it smelled like Levantine paradise when you pour warm rose syrup over the lacy crunch of kanafeh stuffed with oozy cheese.
We ordered and prepaid from my phone at the table, and the hospitality just flowed. Dining outside here simply felt natural. And it has redefined the garden’s role as central to the Suraya experience, making an already great restaurant even better. Suraya, 1528 Frankford Ave., 215-302-1900; surayaphilly.com
La Llorona Cantina
Vamos a llorar is one of Arturo Lorenzo’s favorite expressions when heading to the bar. “It means, ‘Let’s go cry awhile’ and share our troubles over snacks and mezcal,” says Lorenzo, who, acknowledging the pandemic, named his latest project after La Llarona, the tragic Mexican legend of the “crying lady.”
Lorenzo, who also owns Café y Chocolate and La Mula Terca, has 40 bottles of mezcal (plus other spirits like raicilla, sotol, and bacanora) to get the cheer-up session rolling at this new cantina on West Passyunk Avenue. He’s partnered with Adrienne Salvatore-Markey and Tom Lidiak, who owned the Thirsty Soul before its transformation into a destination for mole-glazed wings, aguachile seafood bowls, and huitlacoche sopecitos. Master mixologist Israel Nocelo (Tredici, Positano Coast) is behind beautiful cocktails like the hibiscus-hued Sangre de Bruja and Chile Nogada, a green poblano puree spiked with mezcal, tequila, walnut bitters, and pomegranate juice that’s a liquid version of Puebla’s famed stuffed pepper dish.
Nocelo and Lorenzo have collaborated with chef Zenaeda Flores for a menu rooted in Puebla, the state from which much of South Philadelphia’s Mexican population originates. The memorable flavors included chicken ringed by a tan swipe of almond-based almendrado mole. I also adored the Oaxacan tlayuda, a broad tortilla crisp glossed with lard, avocado leaf-scented black beans, and smoky shreds of chicken tinga. Flores’ al pastor tacos are now among Philly’s best.
La Llarona is solid with safety protocols, though seating along 16th Street is roomier than on Passyunk. This worthy newcomer is a bright addition to our vibrant Mexican options. La Llorona Cantina, 1551 W. Passyunk Ave., 215-515-3276; lalloronaphilly.com
American Sardine Bar
The flowerbox-trimmed backyard behind American Sardine Bar in Point Breeze has long been a favorite refuge for good beer and funky sandwiches. But executive chef Doreen DeMarco, who also oversees South Philadelphia Tap Room and Second District Brewing Co., waited a week beyond the green light for outdoor dining to observe her peers and implement best practices for a gastropub in the coronavirus era. An online wait list to prevent lingering crowds, a 90-minute maximum stay, online menus, disposable plates, and pour-your-own water pitchers have been added to minimize server-diner contact.
And yet, the diligence and warm hospitality of ASB’s staff were reassuring. With a plastic cup of Stable 12′s lemonberry sour ale to quench the 90-degree heat, we settled in for a meal from chef de cuisine Mallory Valvano that was among my best there in recent years.
There were spot-on old favorites, like the massive onion rings and lip-stinging pleasure of peach-infused Buffalo wings. But ASB’s knack for playful sandwiches with international mash-ups was also on point, from a vegan torta take on carnitas with beer-stewed jackfruit and pureed corn “queso,” to a Thai beef riff on banh mi with green curry mayo. Even the Philly standard cheesesteak became a global canvas, taking on a Japanese inspiration with miso-seared beef, shaved scallions, sweet chile mayo, and a pixie-dusting of black and white sesame that looked like tuxedo confetti. American Sardine Bar, 1800 Federal St., 215-334-2337; americansardinebar.com
Like many during the pandemic, chef Fredi Loka has been working on his sourdough, all the better to bolster his artichoke bruschetta. He also acquired a pasta extruder to supplement the fresh noodles that already anchor his menu at Ambrosia, the popular Italian BYOB in Fitler Square he owns with George Profi. This duo hardly took a week off before reopening for takeout. But with outdoor dining now in play, few restaurants are as well-placed to benefit.
The seclusion of their quiet residential corner is a draw for dressed-up date-night couples and families out for a special meal (with dogs in tow). This tiny powerhouse has lined its wide brick sidewalks with nearly 40 well-spaced seats, aided by extra room for tables in the street, and all are spoken for.
The reason is Loka’s quality cooking, from irresistibly crisped gnocchi with pancetta over cauliflower puree to tender octopus curled over salsa verde and corn. The hearty pappardelle with short rib ragù is always worthy. But I wanted to try the lighter option of casarecce from Loka’s new extruder. Tossed with rock shrimp, fistfuls of crab, and snappy green favas in a lemony wine herb sauce, these double-barreled pasta twists captured every drop of oceanic savor. With Loka’s pistachio panna cotta for a sweet finish, life almost felt normal again. Ambrosia, 231 S. 24th St., 215-703-2010; ambrosiabyob.com
Jet Wine Bar Garden
South Street West has become one of the livelier strips for outdoor dining, but its busy row of parklet corrals can sometimes look dauntingly overcrowded. Jet Wine Bar’s leafy garden lot is a welcome oasis just off that hubbub. And, with a stern-but-friendly doorman apprising all comers of the rules (no standing without masks, diners bus their own tables; menu accessed by QR code), this wine bar makes no safety compromises before uncorking the fun.
Once inside its light-strung gravel lot greened with tubs of climbing grape vines, it was easy to enjoy all the familiar charms of Jill Weber’s quirky wine bar. There’s a small menu from Weber’s Rex 1516 across the street, including various skewers and a smaller version of its pimento cheese burger. But this is more a spot for nibbles than a full meal, and the mezze platter of falafel bites and hummus was the perfect speed.
The wine list is the real draw, full of the eclectic international style that has long made Jet one of Philly’s wine-geek magnets. A Slovenian pinot grigio orange wine? An unexpected white tempranillo from La Mancha? They’re as intriguing as ever, even in the plastic cups Jet uses for safety: “I found the thinnest plastic rims possible!” says Weber.
Considering Weber’s longtime work as an archaeologist with the University of Pennsylvania in the Middle East prior to opening restaurants, it was no surprise that Jet swiftly held a benefit for Beirut, with wines to match. With a gorgeous pét-nat rosé of Lebanese grapes from Leb Nat to savor, I was thrilled to contribute to the cause, several sips at a time. Jet Wine Bar Garden, 1525 South St., 215-735-1116; jetwinebar.com
Dim Sum Mania
I’ve ordered plenty of good Chinese takeout during the pandemic (thank you, DanDan and Sang Kee!), but I’ve been daydreaming for months of xiao long bao, the broth-filled Shanghainese soup dumplings that are too delicate to survive takeout with reasonable success. So, it was worth venturing out for one of our first suburban meals in months to Media, where Tom Guo’s Dim Sum Mania remains my XLB champ.
Tables are set up on the sidewalk each evening, but, this being the less restricted suburbs, inside dining is also allowed. With the entire glass facade of Dum Sum Mania opened to the elements, its sparsely filled space is as close to al fresco as inside dining gets. There are many things on this menu I crave, from spicy dry pot shrimp to the Shanghai sticky rice sui-mei and pan-fried dumplings with pork and cabbage. But nothing really compares to those xiao long bao. The savory cascade of hot juice and tender meat stuffing that comes from a strategic nibble on one of their bulging dumpling skins is ... slurp! ... the kind of magic that must be experienced on site. Dim Sum Mania, 17-19 E State St, Media, 610-557-8757; dimsummania.com