Philadelphia’s restaurants have been allowed to reopen for indoor dining, effective Saturday, Jan. 16, at 25% occupancy and with stringent safety measures in place.
But will it help restaurateurs and staffs whose livelihoods have been battered for nearly a year?
Chef David Jansen, who will be able to accommodate 25 guests inside his white-tablecloth Jansen restaurant in Mount Airy, sighed at the question Tuesday. “I don’t even know how many people will want to eat inside, but every little bit helps,” said Jansen, who pivoted to takeout and has been seating patrons outside in a tent under infrared lamps since Nov. 20, when the city shuttered dining rooms for a second time to brace for a holiday coronavirus spike.
The big restaurant groups, such as those owned by Stephen Starr (Parc, Buddakan, Barclay Prime, etc.) and Michael Schulson (Sampan, Double Knot, Harp & Crown, etc.), plan to reopen this weekend. Steak 48, a massive Center City steakhouse that opened just after Labor Day 2020, has booked all of its 90 seats in anticipation of the reopening.
Some smaller operators will not reopen now. Tony Rim, whose Center City sushi restaurant 1225Raw has been open for outdoor dining, said he does not need the additional capacity because his larger, better-funded competitors are taking the bulk of customers around 13th and Sansom Streets.
Chef Christopher Kearse will not reopen Forsythia, his stylish yearling in Old City, until Jan. 29 as he and his staff take a break and wait to see what unfolds with the coronavirus.
Joncarl Lachman said he would stick to takeout at Noord, his European BYOB in South Philadelphia, and Winkle, his breakfast-and-brunch eatery in Center City. He said he does not want to force his staff back to work. Robert and Benjamin Bynum are also not reopening indoors at South and Relish immediately; it’s unclear if they will allow indoor seating initially at their revival of Warmdaddy’s, set for an early-February opening at Broad and Mount Vernon Streets.
The owners of the bars Fergie’s and Monk’s Cafe in Center City have opted to remain closed because their spaces are not profitable at reduced occupancy, and bar seating likely will not be restored anytime soon.
Mike Pasquarello said he would take the plunge at Cafe Lift in the city’s Callowhill section by peppering in some seats, but he said he wanted see how it goes before reopening the nearby Prohibition Taproom and Kensington Quarters.
“It’s all about safety,” said Shawn Darragh, a co-owner of Cheu Fishtown and Nunu. He said he and his partner, Ben Puchowitz, would hold out as long as they can. They’ll feel comfortable, Darragh said, when “all my staff is vaccinated.”
Indoor dining has ridden a roller-coaster for 10 months. The process of opening and closing a restaurant is not simply a matter of flipping a switch; it’s a low-margin business with many moving parts.
Indoor dining was suspended in Philadelphia from March 16 to Sept. 8, when the city allowed restaurants to open at 25% occupancy. The city increased the limit to 50% on Oct. 2. Restaurateurs cheered the move to 50%, which many consider to be the base of profitability, especially since warm weather made outdoor dining more of an option.
But when the city shut things down entirely six weeks later, on Nov. 20, a wave of restaurants closed, most temporarily. The lucrative Thanksgiving and Christmas season, which helps restaurants weather the typical lean days of January and early February, was relegated to a less lucrative side of business, takeout and delivery.
After city Health Commissioner Thomas Farley’s announcement Tuesday afternoon, restaurateurs began making food orders, firming up staffing, and straightening up dining rooms for service. At Starr-owned Talula’s Garden on Washington Square on Monday, for example, tables still bore their Christmas decorations.
The question is whether patrons actually want to dine indoors. Farley said the city was recommending that restaurants work to improve ventilation by installing better filters and increasing outside air exchanges. Many of the previous guidelines are in place, including a limit of four people, all from the same household, at a table. Farley himself said he would not dine indoors.