Outdoor dining in the Philadelphia area blossomed last weekend under clear skies and low humidity as many sidewalks, patios, and streets bustled with (largely) socially distanced activity.
It also was the first full weekend that dining rooms in the city could open, at 25% of capacity, since the six-month pandemic shutdown. A move to 50% capacity could come in October, Philadelphia officials have said. Meanwhile, a federal judge has ruled Gov. Tom Wolf’s limits on crowd sizes unconstitutional.
Indoor tables seemed to be in demand. The weekend’s spike may be attributed not only to the release of pent-up demand but also to Sunday’s start of Center City District Restaurant Week, during which about 80 restaurants offer fixed-price meals. Bar seating is still not allowed, and all alcoholic drinks must be served with meals. Effective Sept. 21, Pennsylvania restaurants may not serve alcohol after 11 p.m. The same day, restaurants outside of Philadelphia may begin seating at 50% of capacity if they self-certify that they are complying with mitigation efforts.
Though many customers and staffers have expressed resistance to indoor dining, Ben Fileccia of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association said restaurants have taken bold steps to sanitize and to stress mask-wearing and distancing. Case in point: Cuba Libre owners Barry Gutin and Larry Cohen installed hospital-grade air filters and ultraviolet lights and have created a full-time staff position at the Old City restaurant to oversee cleaning.
In Center City, Jackson Fu at Dim Sum House and Sam Mink at Oyster House reported their busiest days in months over the weekend. (Mink said it helped that Oyster House recently began accepting reservations.) Trevor Hayward at Evil Genius Beer Co. had a 30-minute wait for the beer garden and for indoor seating on Saturday in its vast space in Fishtown. But Chad Rosenthal reported 45-minute waits for a sidewalk table Saturday at his new Lucky Well barbecue restaurant at 10th and Spring Garden Streets, while the dining room was almost empty all night.
“Most people still wanted to sit outside, and there were tons of interest in the outside due to nice weather, but they also filled up the 25% inside all weekend,” said Ricardo Camacho, chef and partner at Añejo, in Northern Liberties.
Bill Proud, who owns Jerry’s Bar in Northern Liberties, said it was maxed out indoors and outdoors all weekend, creating a 25% rise in sales compared with the previous weekend.
Although Cuba Libre’s outdoor space on Second Street was busy, the indoors, behind fling-out doors, got busier later Saturday when it got cool and windy, Gutin said.
The impending cold weather will change the game. Operating indoors at 25% capacity, with curtailed outdoor seating, is “not survivable,” said Stephen Starr.
“The 25% is only relevant along with outside dining,” said Starr, who last week reopened 16 of his 20 Philadelphia restaurants for indoor dining. “Operating indoors at 25% will not help matters after the fall. All 25% does is get us closer to [actual] capacity. The streeteries have helped, but we need to get to 50%."
But can 50% occupancy, without further federal aid to the restaurant industry, save the day and stave off closings?
Some restaurants, particularly the city’s smaller bars, have elected not to reopen indoors because tight quarters would make even 50% capacity a financial drain. Indoor dining requires additional staff, which is a high expense for restaurants.
Dining rooms now may appear to be wide open, tempting patrons to linger because they don’t see people waiting, said Fileccia, of the restaurant trade group. Restaurant staffs are then put into the awkward position of asking people to leave.
In the Pennsylvania suburbs last weekend, some restaurants seemed busy, as well. On Saturday night, Fireside Grill in Ambler, for example, had filled its few patio tables and the available tables inside, while Stove & Tap in Lansdale had a modest crowd in its dining room as well as at many active tables on its patio and its side street, which the borough had closed off.
“Everyone is still feeling safer outside,” said Justin Weathers, an owner of Stove & Tap.