A sidewalk table at Parc with a crusty baguette and onion soup overlooking Rittenhouse Square. A cool Watermelon Rickey to go with your spicy chicken wings and a view of the Ben Franklin Bridge from the massive deck of Morgan’s Pier. A plate of handmade pasta beneath the breezy awning beside Restaurant Alba in Malvern.
Could these images of al fresco summer normalcy be on the menu again soon? The potential of outdoor dining making a return soon is definitely buzzing in the air. And the region’s entire restaurant industry, devastated by dining-room shutdowns since coronavirus precautions took effect in March, awaits a breath of oxygen in the form of a possible green light for outdoor seating from Gov. Tom Wolf.
“That would be a very big deal for us,” says David Cox, the owner of West Chester’s Four Dogs Tavern and Marshalton Inn. “We have about 180 outdoor seats. But I don’t know what that [number of seats becomes] with social distancing.”
Wolf’s office said Monday that it is working with the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association on guidance to allow for the safe reopening of restaurants for outdoor dining in yellow-phase counties and more broadly in green-phase counties. More details will be available later this week.
But one thing is certain: Whatever outdoor dining looks like when it happens will be far from familiar. From reductions in seating capacity for safe spacing to Plexiglas dividers between tables, limited menus viewed with apps on phones, and complete kitchen reorganizations, restaurateurs are rethinking every aspect of how to do business in a world where pivoting for survival has become a regular task.
“We’ve just figured out how to do the takeout well,” said Alba’s chef/owner Sean Weinberg, who remains conflicted as to whether the additional logistics and costs required for outdoor dining with table service will be worth it.
Even a question as mundane as how to go to the bathroom becomes a puzzle.
“It might be a hall-pass situation,” says Avram Hornik of Morgan’s Pier, mulling how to control the flow of diners across the beer garden’s deck, which, at 220 socially-distanced guests compared with the usual 500, will require a system to keep the public and employees safe. “We’re going to need help from public health officials.”
The City of Philadelphia, meanwhile, has been preparing for the next phase, with half a dozen departments coordinating and considering ways to reimagine public spaces to allow more opportunities for expanded outdoor dining. Considerations include reclaiming parking lanes for parklets and curbside pickup, to using vacant parking lots for festival-style kitchen setups and closing sections of streets for pedestrian-access only, with a couple of closures debuting as soon as the weekend of June 5.
“How long does that last? That’s the real question,” says Michael Carroll, deputy managing director for the city’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability. “One size of intervention does not fit all neighborhoods.”
He declined to say which streets would be among the first for temporary closure, but acknowledged 18th Street near Rittenhouse Square and 13th Street near Sansom were among those being considered, along with other sites across the city.
“You can’t have it be like a street festival. That would be too many people," said Stephen Starr, whose sidewalk seating at Parc — to be cut in half with diners placed at every other table — would benefit greatly along with neighbors such as Rouge and Devon Seafood Grill. “We could put (70) more seats outside and that would help us for two to three months.”
Unless, of course, it decides to rain. “If it starts drizzling, you’re dead,” Starr says.
“It will be very much dine at your own risk,” agrees Justin Weathers, who co-owns four restaurants in the suburbs — two branches of Stove & Tap (Lansdale and Malvern), the Bercy (Ardmore), and Al Pastor (Exton) — with substantial outdoor seating. “What happens when a big storm comes and everyone runs in for cover? Not social distancing.”
A number of restaurateurs, like Cox at Four Dogs Tavern and Hornik at Morgan’s Pier, say reserving tables will become the norm for outdoor seating that has typically been first-come first-served. Reserved time slots will be necessary to prevent large crowds from lingering while waiting for tables.
Weathers says an even bigger concern may be finding front-of-the-house staffing in the suburbs.
“With the extension of unemployment, what employees are going to want to come back to bartender wages in an uncertain tip environment?"
Even so, grasping every opportunity to show that a restaurant is alive and ready for its comeback is essential, he says: “A restaurant is very much a living, breathing organism. The minute you turn it off, it gets stale. It’s not a good overall look for the restaurant. And momentum is a true thing.”
Adding back the possibility of dining on site outdoors, however, isn’t necessarily as easy as popping open an umbrella and readying the service staff with masks and contact-free payment devices. Kitchens will need to be reorganized yet again to accommodate a different workflow.
“We pivoted everything to do takeout food,” says Nick Kennedy, the chef and co-owner of Suraya, which has been averaging 150 takeout meals a night, which represents 50% of its normal revenues. “If we’re trying to do in-house dining at the same time as a huge takeout business, the staffing and cooking models are completely different."
Of course, Suraya’s outdoor garden has the potential to seat up to 80 diners, so the restaurant will “absolutely figure out a way to do it,” he says. “We’ll learn more from these challenges and hopefully become better businesspeople along the way.”
For restaurateurs like Rich Landau of Vedge, though, the notion of adding outdoor dining, a feature the restaurant has never had before, is as much about showing a positive spirit as the finances.
“Are we going to make money? No, absolutely not. Maybe we’ll be able to pay some of bills, because the rent is the rent,” says Landau, who imagines a dozen diners on the Camac Street sidewalk washing down their rutabaga fondues and smoked carrots with natural wines and cocktails. “But we can breathe a little life into the business right now and that’s super important for everyone’s morale. For our staff, our customers, and our city. It’s time to get a little something happening. I’m done with pessimism.”