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In Philadelphia, Restaurants Are Taking It One Day at a Time

Suddenly faced with an impossible situation, local restaurant owners are scrambling to figure out their next steps

long narrow restaurant with long bar and a row of tables
With dining rooms dark in Philadelphia, restaurants like Southgate are figuring out how to react.
Neal Santos

There’s no denying that times are tough for Philadelphia restaurants — and things got a whole lot tougher on Monday night when dining rooms went dark in Philly and across the state. Some restaurant owners made the decision to shut their doors for now, while others are finding ways to serve customers through delivery and takeout.

Questions regarding safety and responsibility during the COVID-19 pandemic are loaded. The restaurateurs who have opted to close entirely are hoping to slow the spread of the virus, but at the same time, closures can leave employees — and in many cases, restaurant owners themselves — financially unstable for the foreseeable future.

Those choosing to remain open, focusing on delivery and takeout sales, are taking it one day at a time.

For Peter Hwang of Southgate, keeping his Korean gastropub on 18th and Lombard running was not an easy decision. “We’re basically looking at the news like hawks and seeing recommendations from local, state, and national government, looking at what other people are doing. We’re doing our best to check on everyone’s health.”

Hwang has gone from a staff of eight to a skeleton crew of just three: one person handling calls and online orders, a cook, and someone to pack up the food. His thinking is it makes sense to continue serving the Rittenhouse and Graduate Hospital neighborhoods while he can. “We don’t want to contribute to the spread, but people will need to eat,” he says. “Grocery lines are out the door, people are unable to get the supplies they need. As this goes on, and people are limited in what they can prepare, we provide different options.“

When asked if there will be any menu changes at Southgate, Hwang manages to find some levity in the situation. “I loved the movie Parasite,” he says, referring to the Oscar-winning film, which featured ram-don, an instant noodle dish that is a play on jjapaguri. It will soon be added to Southgate’s menu. “We had it in the works and we’re still going to go through with it,” he says, “but it probably won’t get the same reaction.”

In the spirit of preparing larger meals for families who need a break from cooking, Filipino restaurant Lalo inside the Bourse food hall in Old City is still making its catering trays and “familya style” meals. These shareable plates of pork inihaw, chicken adobo, fried chicken wings, garlic rice, veggie lumpia, and laing (greens braised in coconut milk, ginger, and Thai chili) can be ordered with 24-hour notice and delivered with no charge within a 10-mile radius of Center City.

Yesterday’s closure of all Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores may be disconcerting to some, but for certain bars and bottle shops, it’s increasing sales. Jill Weber, owner of Rex 1516, Cafe Ynez, and Jet Wine Bar, has been selling bottles to go at Jet on South Street to an eager clientele.

Delivery business has been steady at Cafe Ynez, her Mexican restaurant at 21st and Washington Avenue, and Weber says neighbors are warming to the fact that while they can’t dine in at Rex 1516 (across the street from Jet on South Street), the menu can be enjoyed at home. “People don’t want to make three meals a day,” she says. “I’m one of those people.”

This uncertain time is giving her room to think long-term. She had plans to expand the pastry offerings at Cafe Ynez, and now has some of her team focusing on that project, while others are updating websites and refreshing the interiors of the restaurants. “That’s what I’ve been working on,” Weber says. “Figuring out who is good at what. The primary goal at the moment is to make sure that staff keeps their health benefits, and getting people a paycheck.”