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The Changes Philly Restaurants Need For Outdoor Dining to Work

As coronavirus-related restrictions are eased, Philadelphia restaurants are looking for ways to make outdoor seating and social distancing work on the city’s narrow sidewalks

sidewalk crowded with outdoor tables in front of restaurant at night
Sidewalk tables outside Lolita and Barbuzzo, two of Valerie Safran and Marcie Turney’s restaurants on 13th Street in Center City.
J. Fusco for Visit Philadelphia

With indoor dining currently prohibited in Philadelphia, restaurants and bars want the city to make more space for outdoor tables. It’s a complicated process though, especially in a city that isn’t known for making things easy for restaurants.

“I’d love for the whole 13th Street to be shut down,” says Valerie Safran, who owns six restaurants with chef Marcie Turney on the buzzy Midtown Village/Gayborhood restaurant and bar strip. “I think we have to try anything that we can because this is going to be a very long-term problem.”

Last week, Gov. Tom Wolf announced that Pennsylvania restaurants in the yellow, or middle, phase of the state’s three-part reopening plan can offer outdoor dining starting Friday, June 5, as long as they follow strict regulations, including limiting occupancy to 50 percent and ensuring at least 6 feet between parties at different tables. Restaurants in the green phase can add indoor dining, with similar restrictions.

Philadelphia is still in the red phase and was expected to move into yellow on Friday. But despite Wolf’s statewide announcement, the city has not yet confirmed either that it will be in yellow this week or that outdoor dining will be allowed if it is.

When outdoor dining is allowed, it will be the only way to have diners return to restaurants here for a while, and making it work means making a lot more space for outdoor tables and speeding up the permitting processes.

Finding enough room to follow social distancing requirements on the city’s sidewalks is a “question of geometry,” says Job Itzkowitz, executive director of Old City District, a business improvement district in the historic neighborhood. He’s working with local restaurants and other business improvement districts to lobby the city for temporary policy changes that would allow restaurants to expand outdoor dining options.

“If we want our restaurants to survive, we have to put their seats outside,” Itzkowitz says.

One Old City venue that wants to see more options for outdoor seating is Fork, Ellen Yin’s two-decade-old farm-to-table restaurant on Market Street. Before COVID-19, Fork would serve 200 people inside the restaurant on a good night. With its current sidewalk tables, Yin estimates that she’d be able to serve about 40 people a night outside.

It’s something, but not nearly enough, and Yin says she’s hoping to be able to stretch out. Likewise, at her Rittenhouse Square restaurant A.Kitchen, she wants to create a space for diners in the loading zone in front of the restaurant, and also turn dumpster-lined alley street Moravian, located between A.Kitchen and neighbor Bar Bombon, into a spruced-up outdoor seating area that would be shared by the two restaurants.

Yin is talking to fellow members of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association (PRLA) about how expanded outdoor dining can realistically work. “It can’t be the wild, wild west. Nobody wants it to be,” Yin says.

So far, the PRLA has successfully lobbied the liquor control board to allow restaurants that already have a liquor license and a permit to serve food outside to apply for a temporary extension of their premises, skipping the usual $220 filing fee. Once they apply, they can print out a confirmation page, display it, and immediately be allowed to operate in the outdoor area they proposed in the application (at least until a neighbor or neighboring business files a complaint, in which case the outdoor seating needs to be shut down until the liquor control board reviews the situation).

The upshot of the liquor change is that as soon as a Philly restaurant with a liquor license gets a permit to set up outdoor tables, it can also serve alcohol.

That’s one of the solutions the PRLA and business improvement districts have been working on. Another focuses on the hurdles restaurants face when trying to get permits for sidewalk seating: There’s a fee, a requirement for architectural drawings, and a notoriously slow approval process. Many restaurants would like to see a much more streamlined process put in place, with automatic approvals for new applications and no fee.

Even if a restaurant already has a permit for sidewalk seating, in many cases there isn’t enough physical space to follow social distancing rules, so restaurants also want to be able to set up tables in other places, including in front of neighboring businesses (with their permission), in parking spaces, parking lanes, and vacant lots, or even in the middle of streets — which would, of course, need to be closed to vehicle traffic.

Avram Hornik, who owns several restaurants in Philly, hopes that additional reforms will happen quickly, so he can add sidewalk seating at his huge riverfront bar Morgan’s Pier “all up and down Delaware Avenue,” he says. It’s not an easy task, since he needs the OK from his landlord, the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, the city, and the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. But if it works out, “we might be able to add another 200 seats if we can get permission,” he says.

More seats mean more staff. Safran and Turney’s restaurant group, which includes three restaurants with both liquor licenses and sidewalk seating along 13th Street in Center City, used to employ 275 people but is now operating with about 25. Safran estimates that if their restaurants were able to expand seating out onto the street, they could bring back another 25 to 30 percent.

Since Philly’s outdoor dining season only lasts a few months, restaurateurs like Safran are hopeful that the city can move quickly. “Time is of the essence,” she says. “We’re already in June and only have until September.”