On the first day of outdoor dining, Philly bubbles with excited customers

Rayyan Aziz (front left), Joel James (back left), Ravi Patel (back right) and Sean Shaji (front right) toast with margaritas at Set NoLibs outdoor seating. Today is the first day outdoor dining is allowed since coronavirus shutdowns. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Rayyan Aziz (front left), Joel James (back left), Ravi Patel (back right) and Sean Shaji (front right) toast with margaritas at Set NoLibs outdoor seating. Today is the first day outdoor dining is allowed since coronavirus shutdowns. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Ann Bunting and John Nichols eased into a brightly colored picnic table at Old City Beer Garden just before the clock struck noon. It was a sunny, warm Friday, and the first day for outdoor dining in Philadelphia since the coronavirus shut down business for three months.

“It feels very exciting to be out here, at a real place with real people,” Bunting said from his umbrella-shaded seat, just off Market Street. “We were the first ones to sit down and we’re pretty proud of it.”

Citywide, restaurants are yawning open after what Old City Beer Garden owner Michael Stosic described as a 90-day stint on injured reserve. “It’s like the first day of school!” he said.

Customer opinion is split when it comes to open-air dining, according to an Eater Philly survey of more than 1,000 local restaurant-goers. One third of the respondents said they’re ready to dine out again, but fewer than 7% said they’d be willing to eat inside a restaurant when that’s allowed.

On Friday, neighborhoods from Old City to Northern Liberties to Baltimore Avenue were buzzing with diners excited to emerge from coronavirus hibernation.

Owner Michael Sto and his bartenders Ally Farnswordh (left) Elizabeth Kramer (right) at the Old City Beer Garden in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“It almost feels more weird going out than it does staying in and having drinks,” said Nichols, sipping on a beer. “But it’s a good kind of weird that we’re super excited to be out here again.”

Joe Luke came from Yardley to take advantage of the city’s new energy.

“Summer in Philly is great, so being back to the normal summer in Philly is fantastic,” Luke said. He was joined by Quakertown resident Dan Rutledge, who agreed: “It does make you feel like you’re back on to normalcy to an extent.”

Ravi Patel, Joel James, Rayyan Aziz and Seah Shaji were apartement shopping when they happened upon SetNoLibs. To the group’s surprise, they were allowed to grab a table and sit down.

“I did not know that today was the first day,” James said of restaurants reopening. “We wanted some food and some drinks, we heard some music, we saw the outdoor seating, so we were like why not?”

Philadelphia officials announced last week that restaurants with pre-existing outdoor dining could reopen on June 12, with strict health safety measures. Tables have to be six feet apart, customers and staff must wear masks unless they’re eating, there are capacity limits and business hours are limited to 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Blue masking tape is intended to create social distance between customers at the Independence Beer Garden in Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

On Thursday, the city released a plan that allows establishments to quickly add outdoor seating for the first time. Proprietors can apply for a sidewalk cafe permit, opt for a parking space “streetery,” take advantage of private lots and even apply to close a street for up to 60 hours.

A construction street closure worked out beautifully for Society Hill restaurant The Twisted Tail.

Owner George Reilly said he was alarmed when beautification construction on Headhouse Square turned 2nd Street into a work zone. Turns out he can take advantage of it. Workers are currently building an on-street Twisted Tail Garden with bamboo, turf, flowers and sprawling umbrellas.

“We’re able to add a bunch of tables there,” Reilly told WHYY and Billy Penn. “It’s going to turn into actually a really nice, tranquil spot.

Good thing the garden opens next week, because Twisted Tail’s normal sidewalk seating is already pretty booked up. “This weekend certainly will be busy,” Reilly said. “We are at the mercy of Mother Nature, but for opening weekend it’s looking like it’ll be a nice one.”

With a weekend promising warm, sunny days, Saba Tedla of Booker’s Restaurant and Bar in West Philadelphia is hoping to fill the 30 outside seats her restaurant has available. At about 1:30 on Friday, four of Booker’s dozen tables had customers.

Customers were thrilled to find Booker’s open on Baltimore Avenue (Courtesy Saba Tedla)

There is a slight downside to the new option. “[Outdoor seating] will improve things,” Tedla said. “The disadvantage is that our takeout has been good, but now we’ve got to compete between takeout and outdoor.”

Booker’s closed for two months and only re-opened at the end of April. Then, the restaurant saw revenues tumble from $25k to $30k a week to less than 20% of that. Things started to take a turn on Mother’s Day, when Booker’s did about $5k in one day.

Located on Baltimore Avenue, Tedla said her southern-style restaurant has an advantage: “Our street size is actually double the normal sidewalk of any Center City street so we actually have seating on both sides of the street.

“Having 30 seats,” she observed wryly, “is great in our world.”

Get the WHYY app!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Help us get to 100% of our membership goal to support the reporters covering our region, the producers bringing you great local programs and the educators who teach all our children.