One recent evening at dinner with friends, Christina Mitchell and Rebecca Neckritz commented on the various cultural differences between dining in America and abroad, namely the pair’s preference for the European tendency toward doing it later in the evening — hours past Mitchell and Neckritz’s 6 p.m. reservation at Cheu. Upon polling the rest of the group on their ideal time to dine out, Mitchell and Neckritz, both 23 and both late-night eaters, discovered they were in the minority. Save for the pair, who run the popular Instagram Philly Food Ladies, documenting local restaurants, their friends’ prime dinner time fell in the early evening hours post-work.
“I prefer to eat later just because growing up I always had to work night [shifts], so I’m used to eating dinner after work,” Mitchell says. “I got into a routine of eating around like 8, 9, maybe even 10 p.m.”
“Christina and I just had a reservation at 8 p.m. because now that we’re post-college, a lot of us have nine-to-five jobs and are working a lot more than we used to,” Neckritz says.
In the aftermath of constantly changing pandemic dining restrictions, Philadelphia restaurantgoers are at an inflection point. With more restaurant options and higher demand than ever — but with restaurants maintaining limited hours as a result of staff shortages and unpredictable dining patterns — local patrons are taking a more of-the-moment approach to dining out, opting for availability and convenience.
Contrary to New York’s much-discussed recent swing toward 6 p.m. dinner, Philly patrons are most often making dinner reservations for 7 p.m., according to the last six months of reservation data from reservation platform Resy, the same as 2019. The second-most-popular dinner reservation time in Philly, according to Resy, is 6:30 p.m. Similarly, OpenTable reports the hour between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. as being the most-reserved on their platform so far in 2022; in close second is 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. These hours were also the most popular dinner reservation times in 2019, according to OpenTable.
This is in line with Christopher Kearse’s experience at his contemporary French restaurant Forsythia. While happy hour at Forsythia — from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. — has been busier, Kearse says 6:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. is Forsythia’s peak hours. “It used to be 8:30 p.m.,” he says. “Now it’s 7 o’clock.”
Kearse has observed a recent uptick in bar seating and double the number of walk-ins, as opposed to reservations. The reservations he is seeing are booked either day-of or the day prior, a vast difference from the few-week lead time pre-pandemic, Kearse says. “Everything’s at the last minute.”
Depending on your circumstances, a play-it-by-ear approach to dinner is preferable, especially for parents. If Roland Bui and his wife are bringing their daughters, ages 6 and 7, along to eat, Bui grabs a table at 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. When they leave the kids at home for date night, Bui, 36, and his wife try to be seated between 7 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. — what he considers prime-time dinner hours in Philly based on the lack of reservation availability he’s observed on apps like Resy and OpenTable. Although reservations may be booked far in advance, he’s had luck with walk-in bar seating at Laser Wolf, Friday Saturday Sunday, and Irwin’s.
Although customer-facing pandemic dining restrictions — like mandatory reservations, limited hours, and 90-minute time limits — are much less common in fall 2022, these constraints have shaped patrons’ and restaurants’ habits. Subliminally or not, the stickiness of pandemic dining has constricted dinnertime windows. “Whether it’s a staffing situation or whether restaurants just got used to specific curfews that were in place for a long time for us, a lot of restaurants do close earlier — and we’re actually one of them,” says Rosita Lamberti, the director of restaurants for Aldo Lamberti’s Family of Restaurants. “We were just done earlier and I think that people are used to most restaurants being done a little bit earlier.”
As other major cities, like New York, shift toward earlier dinner times, driven by more flexible remote-work lifestyle changes, Philadelphians’ dining decisions are largely dictated by other factors. Mitchell likes to work up a substantial appetite between lunch and dinner when she dines out, and finds she’s not hungry at 5:30 p.m. At Positano Coast by Aldo Lamberti, patrons tend to dine later during the summer, due to delayed sunsets and more hours of daylight, Lamberti says. Although Abby Riley, 26, works remotely, she logs off later than when she traveled to the office and doesn’t have time for dinner earlier than 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. “I get all dressed up after work for dinner or happy hour just to take it off a few hours later,” she says.
This isn’t to say work doesn’t influence dinner times at all. The slow return to the office — Comcast workers in Philly recently adopted a hybrid schedule and about half of the city’s office workers are back in-person compared to pre-pandemic levels, on par with New York City office-occupancy numbers — has influenced where and when people eat dinner. Nate Johnson, the vice president of operations for Garces restaurants, has observed employees calling it quits earlier in the day, say 4 p.m. or 4:15 p.m., running a few errands after work, then settling in for dinner at 5 p.m, if they’re even hanging around the city at all.
“If they’re leaving at 4 o’clock, there are restaurants that aren’t even open at 4 o’clock,” Johnson says. “So what’s the point of hanging out for an hour?” Those who do are frequenting restaurants in Rittenhouse Square, near many downtown offices, on the earlier side, Johnson says. Still, he says, peak dinner time at Garces restaurants falls within the 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. range during the week — earlier than pre-pandemic — and 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. on weekends, roughly about the same as in 2019.
If lack of commute, less-concrete end time at work, and a need to get out of the house are not the strongest motivators for dinnertime planning in Philly, then table availability is. The city’s reputation as a restaurantgoer’s delight has made scoring a reservation at popular establishments like Zahav, Laser Wolf, Her Place Supper Club, and Vetri like a game of chess. This reservation-scarcity mindset has trickled into restaurants of every caliber, diners say, so they’re willing to jump on any table they can get at their desired eating place, regardless of time.
“You cannot catch me going out to dinner without a reservation,” says Irene Cedano. “If it’s not on OpenTable, on Resy, and I know I have a specific time, I’m not going to do it.” Cedano, 26, tends to dine in Center City — Harp & Crown is her favorite — and grabs an early reservation, around 5:30 p.m. or 5:45 p.m., after leaving work downtown. On weekends, she’ll go out to eat between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m, “beating that 7 p.m. peak time,” she says.
Steve Martinho, 38, tends to dine out between 6:45 and 8 p.m., but is also largely guided by reservation availability, especially for restaurants he’s “dying to get into,” he says.
Similarly, Bui will prioritize a certain dining experience over a specific time. “If I see a dish that I want, I don’t care if I’m eating at 5 p.m. or at 9 p.m., I’ll just go and get it whenever I can,” he says.
Even if commuters and early bird diners are vacating the premises by 7:30 p.m., that gives plenty of later eaters like Mitchell and Neckritz of Philly Food Ladies a chance to enjoy the lull and maybe get their food a little faster. Plus, a late dinner is a great way to pregame before hitting the clubs.
“You can get dinner, have a couple drinks at dinner, and then by the time you’re ready to go to a club or a bar, it’s not weirdly early,” Neckritz says. “Because who wants to be at the bar way too early?”