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There's One Table at Laurel You Can Totally Get

Photo: Eater Philly

What do you get when you take one teeny, tiny, dollhouse-sized restaurant and put a Top Chef winner in the (teeny, tiny, dollhouse-sized) kitchen? A ton of would-be diners anxiously awaiting the day the reservation book opens for tables two months in advance — and then promptly closes again.

But if you don't get through and are feeling impatient, there's a private dining loophole at Laurel. The back yard has actually been in use for a while now, though chef/owner Nick Elmi says it's been reserved mostly by friends of the restaurant so far, while he worked on finishing off the space. Now that the makeover's done, Eater Philly dropped by to check out the space — and got a little more info on some more renovations coming up at Laurel, that will see the restaurant closed for ten days or so at the end of the summer.

IMGP0119.JPGSo here are the vitals: The private dining situation at Laurel is pure South Philly back yard — i.e., a walled-in concrete slab, just large enough for a table, some planters, and a couple of heat lamps when the weather calls for them. The vibe back there now matches the dining room at Laurel: cozy, relatively quiet, stylish while still feeling totally relaxed and personal. And even if the dining room is booked, there's still plenty of availability in the back: You'll need to gather a party of four to six people and commit to the tasting menu ($75 per person — which is the same price you'll pay inside, and the whole place is tasting-only on weekends anyway), but then the outdoor space is yours for the night.

Oh, and you'll need some flexibility, too: if the weather is terrible, dinner's off.

IMGP0117.JPGElmi did much of the work inside the restaurant himself, so it follows that the reno outside features the handiwork of friends. He enlisted the help of florist Meredith Sexton (who, doing business as Stems by Meredith, specializes in restaurants and does the flowers for the Vetri family) to help pretty things up. But many of the needs back there were practical: Elmi wanted a screen constructed to block the view of the back door to neighboring Dante, for one.

So Sexton brought in Scott Armstrong — an artist and woodworker with more than a decade of experience building custom furniture and more, though his full-time gig is as a registered nurse — to build and install practical and decorative pieces. He used salvaged materials, including cypress recovered from a mushroom growhouse in Kennett Square and sourced from NoLibs' Provenance Architecturals, and added personal touches like a stenciled-on EPA seal (familiar from the Avenue's manhole covers) and handmade solar lanterns crafted out of mason jars and, in one case, an antique electrical insulator.

[Photo: Scott Armstrong]

Armstrong also built a planter box, which Sexton filled with herbs to be used by the kitchen — that is, unless the monarch caterpillars get to them first:

To get to the backyard, you'll (carefully) file through the kitchen, maybe getting a bit friendlier with the kitchen crew than you're used to. It's a tight fit now, but there is some hope for a bit more breathing room. After about eight months in business, Elmi is showing understandable signs of frustration with the size limitations ("Your only choice is to build up, so we just keep adding more and more shelves to the walls," he laughs), and will soon implement an expansion plan.

Laurel is currently slated to close from August 24 to September 2, during which time work is scheduled that should, at least, move the dishwasher out of the kitchen to free up some room. (How? There's some workable space next to the kitchen as it currently exists, as well as an offer of some potential room in the back of the neighboring record shop, Beautiful World Syndicate.) "We're at the point now," Elmi says, "where we're thinking about how we can grow what we have here, how we can do more."
[Photos: Eater Philly, except where otherwise noted]

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