Philly restaurateurs celebrate move to let different households dine outside together

With indoor dining on hold, some restaurants have gone to great lengths to make outdoor dining work in the winter. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

With indoor dining on hold, some restaurants have gone to great lengths to make outdoor dining work in the winter. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

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Philadelphia restaurateur Winnie Clowry will tell you that the city’s prohibition on outdoor dining with people from outside of your household wasn’t simply bad for business — it was also a logistical headache.

“We split up friends all the time,” said Clowry, owner of Winnie’s Manayunk. “We make fours and twos. Threes and threes. That’s all day long.”

The city of Philadelphia began limiting outdoor dining to just four people from the same household last November, when coronavirus cases were surging. The move, which came along with an indoor dining ban, was meant as a safety measure, but it was devastating to many of the city’s restaurant owners. 

On Monday, the city rolled back its outdoor dining restrictions, citing declining case numbers and a growing vaccination effort. Restaurants can now seat up to six people together, and they no longer have to live together.

Clowry said she’s thrilled to no longer have to play seating Tetris with the large families and other groups who come to her establishment for weekend brunch, which has resulted in longer-than-normal wait times during pandemic.

“For me, it will make a big difference,” she said. “I wind up having the mom and dad with three kids [seated apart]. It is kind of a weird scene.”

Those sitting inside are still limited to four people per table and must share the same household. Earlier this month, the city announced restaurants are now limited to just 50% of their maximum occupancy indoors if they can meet ventilation standards.

Jeremy Page, general manager of the West Philadelphia staple Booker’s Restaurant, said indoor dining is now not as important for his restaurant’s survival as what’s happening outside with the weather.

Booker’s has just eight tables inside, compared to eleven outdoors. The sidewalk setup is now covered by a wooden shelter and warmed by propane heaters.

“Without that, we would not have survived,” he said. “[Our outdoor dining] has turned into a destination spot for a lot of people.”

Page was thrilled to learn the city’s ban on outdooring dining outside of your household has been lifted, saying it was “definitely frustrating” for his guests.

“Even though it’s COVID, most guests are in a celebratory mood. They want to celebrate with family and friends,” Page said. “So it is frustrating for them when we [had] to enforce the city guidelines.”

Other restaurant owners said they didn’t expect the outdoor dining changes to make much of a difference to their business, noting that the city had made it the restaurant’s responsibility to enforce its regulations.

“The same household rule was near impossible to enforce,” said Peter Hwang, owner of the Center City Korean gastropub Southgate. “But [the rule change] doesn’t hurt!”

For some who live alone or in small households in Philadelphia, the new rules mean a chance to meet friends in the city for the first time in months.

Mike Strello shares a home in Roxborough with his wife. The 27-year-old construction manager said in recent months, the couple has been driving to neighboring suburbs to eat out with their friends.

“Phoenixville, King of Prussia,” Strello said. “I have been really eager to get back to dining with friends.”

Strello said he’s excited about getting out of the car, and to begin exploring his own neighborhood again.

“Nowadays, we really have to have a plan to where we are going to go,” he said. “Definitely looking forward to playing by ear.”

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