Grocery inventories have fluctuated wildly since March 2020, and lately, spot shortages have been apparent all over stores. We’ll tell you what’s going on and show you how to eat better in these times. Read on for updates on outdoor dining and Philadelphia’s vaccine mandate, catch Craig LaBan’s latest review, and get the backstory on a hot dog topped with baked beans, bacon, mustard, and chopped onions.

Start you off with a quiz.

Rank these Tastykake pie flavors, in order of sales:

a. French apple, b. apple, c. cherry, d. TastyKlair, e. lemon

Answer is below.

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Mike Klein

Why grocery shortages are cropping up

If you’ve been inside a supermarket lately, you’ve been treated to new rounds of spot shortages of certain items. Last month, for example, cream cheese made headlines. But the supply issues are much deeper and endemic than your morning schmear. Philadelphia grocer Jeff Brown of the region’s ShopRite stores says he’s having trouble getting frozen foods from suppliers. It’s a demand issue. Many people would rather stay home and eat than go to a restaurant, given the cold weather and spread of COVID-19. Anecdotally, my restaurant contacts are confirming that dine-in business is even softer than usual.

To help you make sense of this:

  • We’ll offer four reasons you’re seeing empty shelves. Some of the culprits this time are the same as in the early days of the pandemic, and some can be chalked up to new problems bumping up against old ones.

  • How to find fresh food and make healthy meals while grocery shelves are bare.

  • This is a great time to address food waste. Try companies such as Imperfect Produce and Misfits Market for delicious though ugly fruits and vegetables. And if you’re looking for incredible deals on baked goods and prepared foods, look into Too Good to Go, whose app will hook you up with tasty (though leftover foods) from restaurants, bakeries, and grocery stores in the region. Examples: The $3.99 “surprise bag” from the Filipino stand Tambayan at Reading Terminal Market contains Filipino spaghetti, or maybe tapsilog from breakfast. And for $3.99 at the new Healthy Picks, a deli at 19th and Ludlow Streets, you can score a bag containing pastries, a missed takeout order (like an overstuffed sandwich), and/or smoothies.

Philadelphia vaccine mandate update

Want to eat inside a Philadelphia restaurant? As of Jan. 17, you need to show your vaccination card. The grace period, during which you could show proof of a negative COVID-19 test, has ended.

Children under 5 and people with medical or religious exemptions may dine indoors, but they must still show proof of a negative test if the venue holds more than 1,000 people. The city health department will continue with regular food inspections, as well as checking complaints lodged through 311. Enforcement can include fines of up to $2,000 per day for businesses found in violation.

My colleague Nick Vadala explains where you will need a card and tells you how to get free COVID-19 rapid tests by mail.

Even with temperatures in the 20s last weekend, dinner diehards could be seen dining outside — in Fishtown at Cheu/Nunu’s cozy tables, in the igloos at General Warren Inne in Malvern, and on the heated seats at Martha in Kensington. (Because nothing beats a warm meal and a warm tuchus.) On Center City’s 13th Street restaurant row, however, the streeteries have gone away as the city routed them to make way for a longtime utility project.

Streeteries and other outdoor dining setups vary widely, from lots of radiant heat under a roof to simple propane heaters. From the feedback I’ve been getting lately, would-be customers would like to see the setups before heading out. Restaurants might think about posting photos on their social media. For dozens of reader recommendations about outdoor dining, read the comments on my recent Instagram post.

Harry Potter fans are gonna love this new bar-restaurant

Fans of wizardry, fantasy, and other supernatural doings will feel right at home at The Cauldron Magical Pub, opening soon in Philadelphia. Patrons will get a robe to wear and mix their own cocktails. Expect lots of fire, smoke, and magic. In advance of the spring opening in Center City, the company is selling its chip-controlled magic wands, which you can have personalized to display in the restaurant — much as you’d secure a wine locker at a steakhouse.

Craig LaBan reviews Rex at the Royal

Critic Craig LaBan heads to a landmark location on South Street — the new Rex at the Royal, the vast, ambitious, gorgeous Southern restaurant with Lowcountry influences that anchors the long-awaited redevelopment of the historic Royal Theater. Owners Jill Weber and Evan Malone of Sojourn Philly (who also own Sor Ynez, Cafe Ynez, and Jet Wine Bar) intend it as a tribute to the Southern Black chefs who moved to Philadelphia during the Great Migration. Craig says he’s enjoyed chef Aaron Paik’s food and his overall dining experiences. “But whether Rex at the Royal has the culinary vision to really achieve its lofty historical tribute mission is an open question,” he writes in his review, accompanied by delicious photos by staff photographer Charles Fox.

From West Philly to the cover of Essence

West Philadelphia native Derrick “D” Hayes is flying high these days in Atlanta, where he has two (soon to be three) hit Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks shops, an entrepreneurial partner (restaurateur Aisha “Pinky” Cole), a baby daughter with her (plus daughters ages 5 and 7), and now a cover story in Essence magazine. This is the blessed trip for the 34-year-old Overbrook High grad, and parts of it are reminiscent of the fictional Will Smith in Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Restaurant report

Center City District Restaurant Week always yields a newcomer or two worth checking out. This time, it’s The Mulberry, which recently replaced The James at 19th and Arch Streets, across from the Four Seasons and Vernick Fish. Upscale, dare I say romantic, pub environs with two fireplaces and a “secret” bar tucked inside the building’s walk-in vault. Chef Thomas Groves’ menu hits the basics, while the RW specials ($40 for 3 courses) are interesting. Pictured above is the “broken rack of lamb frites,” boned lamb ribs with shaved potatoes, sauteed arugula, and tomato salad, in a rosemary demi. Operator Ken Merriman oversees a first-rate beer list, too. Whiskey figures into the outstanding espresso martini (below), a blend of Jameson Cold Brew and Carolans Irish Cream, along with Kahlúa and brewed espresso. It’s named the Espresso Mar-Tiffany after its creator, bartender Tiffany Henning.

Hours: 4 p.m.-”late” Tuesday to Friday, 11 a.m.-”late” Saturday and Sunday.

Ready for a Sabrett hot dog topped with bacon, baked beans, mustard, and diced onions on a Liscio’s roll? Or dog topped with creamy peanut butter and crunchy Fritos? Or a burger inspired by the Bloomin’ Onion from Outback? Chef Dane DeMarco, who’s made a name specializing in terrific, over-the-top burgers and hot dogs at Philadelphia bars, just opened Burgertime NJ, a shop in downtown Audubon, N.J., that I wrote about last week.

Besides burgers and hot dogs, DeMarco makes funnel cake, fried pickles, grilled cheese sandwiches, floats with soft-serve ice cream, and their all-time favorite fountain soda, RC Cola. Counter seating/takeout service.

Audubon, just off the White Horse Pike, is brimming with food businesses, such as the new LesbiVeggies and Brown Dog Cafe, plus Red White & Brew Beer Co., Smoke BBQ, Angelo’s Pizza, Cousins Deli, and Desserts by Design.

Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Briefly noted

The subterranean main dining room and private dining rooms at the Italian restaurant Giuseppe & Sons have reopened at 1523 Sansom St. for dinner. New plans supposedly are afoot for the street-level room.

The Philly Flurry in Fairmount and Francisville runs through Jan. 23, featuring 33 businesses (including 15 bars and restaurants) providing discounts, free drinks, desserts, gifts, and other special offers. Here’s the list of itineraries, a map of participating businesses, and flyers with all offers.

People’s Light, the professional nonprofit theater in Malvern, has reopened its restaurant as The Fern & Fable, featuring comfort food from chef Scott Burns plus cocktails in three rooms of an 18th-century farmhouse, with two working fireplaces.

Salad specialist Sweetgreen has opened a freestanding location at 228 E. Lancaster Ave. in Wayne.

Stir-fry maker Wokworks, which had been going the food cart/kiosk route, has opened a shop at 200 W. Oregon Ave. in South Philadelphia.

It’s Girl Scout cookie time again. Time to stock up on Thin Mints, Shortbreads, and Lemonades, but folks in the Philly/South Jersey area will have to go elsewhere for S’mores. They’re no longer available locally. That’s the way the cookie crumbles.

What you’ve been eating this week

Readers, share your dining high points with us on Instagram. Here is @feedingtimetv’s snap of the 5-Beast Board from Far East Descendants, a sampling of dishes that feeds 4 to 6 people at this cool Chinatown hideaway. Reader @andrewcoligan, meanwhile, enjoyed a Schmitter from McNally’s in Chestnut Hill, one of Philly’s signature sandwiches (steak, cheese, fried onions, tomatoes, salami and dressing). DM photos to @phillyinsider.

Quiz answer

Tastykake tells me that its top-selling pie is the Tasty Klair (d), followed by lemon (e), apple (b), French apple (a), and cherry (c). This carby tableau was captured at the Wawa on Limekiln Pike in Wyncote.

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