On a crisp evening in October, the kind where it isn’t too cold but the quickly setting sun triggers a swift change in climate, David Schulman and his parents, celebrating their 37th anniversary, dined al fresco at the Love. The streetery — a semi-enclosed dining shed overtaking the parking spots in front of a restaurant — was a navy blue structure with charming white trim and globe pendant lights illuminating each dining booth. It was private but not extravagant — satisfactory to Schulman’s liking. The service was exceptional, Schulman says, to the point where his father, who typically doesn’t enjoy eating outside, was comfortable and well fed.
Outdoor dining is a boon for Schulman’s family: His father is immunocompromised and can’t risk catching the coronavirus. Although he and his family are all vaccinated, Schulman, 35, will continue to dine outdoors, independently or with a group, no matter the temperature. “I will say, there is something beautiful about being outdoors,” Schulman says, “sitting down to a dinner with a friend while there’s snow on the ground or it’s a peaceful winter night.”
Throughout the tumult of the pandemic, outdoor dining has remained essential to restaurants’ survival. In Philadelphia, as restrictions around indoor dining ping-ponged from 50 percent capacity in September 2020 to complete shutdown by November 2020, patio, sidewalk, and streetery seating became an indispensable revenue stream. With few options beyond carryout, diners bundled up and braved the cold last winter to support the city’s food establishments; over the course of the season, restaurants made their outdoor dining setups more hospitable, with heaters, fire pits, tents, warming pods, blankets, and charming decor. The hope? To distract patrons with enough whimsy that they’d forget they were eating outside during the coldest months of the year.
This winter, thanks to widespread vaccine availability, indoor dining is permitted in the city, yet interest in outdoor dining remains. A safer alternative, given the uptick in COVID-19 cases and the emerging new omicron variant, many diners are mostly unbothered by chowing down under heat lamps — and restaurants are happy to have the extra seats. (On January 3, providing proof of vaccination at bars and restaurants will become a requirement in Philly, with very few exceptions.) For parents of children too young to be vaccinated, or with only one dose, outdoor dining is a way to revel in one aspect of pre-pandemic life that suits their situation, thanks to year-round sidewalk seating.
And now, with City Council’s recent bill legalizing streeteries in parts of the city, including Center City, East Passyunk, and University City, diners and restaurateurs are once again preparing for another season of chilled service. Other establishments, in areas left out of the permanent streetery bill, are left in the lurch, wondering if their council members will allow their dining structures to remain.
While initially outdoor winter dining was offered — and patronized — out of pure necessity, the experience has in many respects morphed into a novel, unconventional experience unto itself. Aimee Olexy, co-owner of the Love, Talula’s Garden, and Talula’s Daily, in partnership with Starr Restaurants, and owner of Talula’s Table in Kennett Square, has always offered outdoor seating at her restaurants, but the addition of streeteries provides tourists and visitors from the suburbs looking to catch a show downtown with a new way of dining altogether. These tourists may not have seen streeteries before, Olexy says, and now she’s well practiced in offering a welcoming winter dining experience. “I’m really committed to reengaging that level of hospitality for outdoor dining because it’s a new kind of guest that is visiting,” Olexy says.
It helps that the structures were designed to attract diners. After expanded outdoor dining debuted during the summer of 2020, and as restaurants realized the arrangement and the pandemic would extend through the winter, more substantial and stylish streeteries began to pepper city streets. Richard Stokes, of Stokes Architecture + Design, responsible for the chic outdoor dining structures at the Love, Parc, Bar Bombón, and Wm. Mulherin’s Sons, among others, designed them as an extension of the restaurant’s interior. Instagrammable streeteries, like at Parc, which has long emulated the aesthetic and ethos of a Parisian bistro with its extensive outdoor dining area, lure pandemic-weary diners like moths to a flame. Once passersby observe a lively outdoor setup, the momentum continues, Stokes says. “We did Parc,” Stokes says, “and we let the energy out onto the sidewalk, so having that energy level outside really helps a restaurant.”
It’s this exact thrum of excitement that’s drawn Jabari Jones to Rittenhouse Square streeteries like Rouge time and again. Jones, 27, felt comfortable enough dining out late last winter and found patio heaters and dining bubbles more than sufficient at keeping him warm. This cold season, Jones will again opt for al fresco eating. “I’m not the most risk-averse person who’s constantly thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I might get COVID,’ but I’m not going [into] any high-risk situations,” he says. “I certainly would choose to be outside when it’s available and comfortable.”
As the omicron variant throws the world further into pandemic PTSD, having the option to eat outside assuages the fears of cautious guests. While dozens of Philly bars and restaurants currently require proof of vaccination to eat indoors, it will become a blanket permanent requirement in the city starting in January 2022. Phoebe Galbraith, 28, and her fiance planned on braving the cold and dining al fresco this winter but have now reconsidered given the city’s upcoming indoor dining vaccine mandate. Similarly, Joe DeCarolis, 40, says restaurant vaccine requirements are a game changer; he and his wife will now seriously consider eating inside. Many other diners, at least for the time being, will choose frigid temps and peace of mind.
However, if outdoor dining were to vanish due to the city’s new vaccine mandate for indoor dining, Juanita Lawson would be excluded from the city’s restaurants altogether. Lawson says she is unable to be vaccinated due to underlying health conditions and hasn’t seen the inside of a bar or restaurant since 2020. Even prior to the pandemic, she wasn’t a fan of crowded dining establishments, with their sordid air and spittle. Now, the city’s plentiful sidewalk seating and streetries provide her with the opportunity to dine out safely and without shame. “Outdoor dining means a lot to me,” Lawson says. “I don’t go out a lot, but when I do go out I want to have the option.”
Streeteries and sidewalk seating aren’t a blanket solution to every citizen’s woes. People with disabilities and the elderly face difficulties navigating congested sidewalks and intersections. Lack of walking space in front of restaurants and blocked curb cuts can be logistical and safety hazards.
While there’s an ongoing need to more closely examine these issues, restaurants also acknowledge that being able to offer guests a choice in their dining experience is another necessity that they have been without for much of the pandemic. With its cozy French environs, Queen Village’s Good King Tavern is typically unable to accommodate large groups, says owner Chloé Grigri. The restaurant’s outdoor area gives Grigri the extra capacity to welcome larger parties. In prior years, she would usually stow away the pub’s outdoor tables for the winter after Halloween but this year, interest in al fresco pommes frites remains as high as it was in warmer months, Grigri says.
Some restaurateurs suspect the thrill of frigid eating will peter out this season, though not entirely. Although guests are more comfortable dining indoors as of late at modern Korean outpost SouthGate, owner Peter Hwang says he’ll continue to operate the restaurant’s outdoor sidewalk seating.
Similarly, both MilkBoy locations — on Chestnut and South Streets, the latter of which has a streetery — will keep its outdoor sections open this season, even if interest isn’t as substantial as last year, says co-founder Jamie Lokoff. After all, outdoor setups are what kept the bars afloat last year; it doesn’t quite make sense to ditch them completely.
“It’d be hard to pass that up because it’s providing all those extra seats,” Lokoff says. “Not to mention that we put a lot of money into building it. You hate to see that money go to waste. We continue to invest money to keep it current and looking good. They’re going to have to order me to take it down.”
At restaurants with streeteries outside the council-approved boundaries, owners will either have to clear the street by January 1 or seek approval from City Council in order to keep the streetery. South Philly beer bar Devil’s Den, with its wood-paneled enclosed parking lot seating area, sits outside of the greenlighted streetery zone at 11th and Ellsworth. Owner Erin Wallace says she sent an email a few weeks ago requesting approval to extend the bar’s streetery permit and hopes she’s able to acquire the necessary permits before December 31 so as to not interrupt outdoor service. “The cost of taking down the streetery and rebuilding it would hurt,” Wallace says, “and the potential extra seating and revenue would be a huge help to continue to keep us afloat.”
For some folks, the thrill of outdoor dining comes down to the simple things: a cold gust, the entertainment of people watching. Johnston T moved to Philly from Alabama a year ago when outdoor dining was about the only thing one could do for fun. Having never experienced a true winter for most of her 30 years, bundling up and grabbing a table outside Tattooed Mom is a welcome departure from the loud confinement of a bar, and outdoor dining is a ritual she’ll carry over into 2022. “Not having to be inside because we just spent so long inside, it’s really nice to not have to,” Johnston says. Just to be out in the fresh air, “to me, it’s just a nicer experience.”