Survey: Center City restaurants’ recovery boosted by outdoor seating

The numbers are in: More outdoor seating has helped Center City rebound and appears key to a sustained recovery of Philadelphia’s vibrant downtown.

Oscar's Tavern has outdoor seating on Sansom Street in Center City. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Oscar's Tavern has outdoor seating on Sansom Street in Center City. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

For nearly 50 years, Oscar’s Tavern has been a destination for those who don’t want to be seen. Or at least, seen very well.

The dive bar, situated on Sansom Street in Center City, is known for its vinyl booths, cheap beer, and orange lighting.

But back in June, the pandemic forced Oscar’s to do what was previously unthinkable: put some tables outside.

“Oscar’s is dark … outside is bright,” longtime manager Angela Mullan said. “It’s not what [customers] come to Oscar’s for.”

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At first, the outdoor seating didn’t do much for the bar’s business: Oscar’s can only fit three two-person tables on the sidewalk outside. But, starting in July, the city began closing Sansom Street every weekend to traffic to allow for more outdoor seating.

Now, Friday through Sunday, Oscar’s has 20 tables outside — more than doubling its capacity.

“I never expected to see outdoor seating,” Mullan said. “But it’s definitely helped keep us open.”

The proliferation of outdoor seating has been a major driver in the rapid recovery of Center City restaurants since June, according to a detailed new survey from the Center City District and Central Philadelphia Development Corporation.

The number of temporarily closed restaurants in Center City fell from 262 in June, to 144 last month, according to the survey. In that time the number of outdoor seats nearly doubled, going from 2,997 to 5,152.

But, the report warns, the restaurant industry’s continued recovery is not assured. It depends in part on the weather, and on whether city officials choose to extend COVID-era outdoor dining regulations that are currently set to expire at the end of December.

“[Outdoor seating] has really helped business,” said Paul Levy, president and CEO of Center City District. “I think a lot of people are talking about how much of this can we standardize?”

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Last month, Philadelphia City Councilmember Allan Domb introduced two bills that would extend outdoor dining regulations through 2021. One would authorize sidewalk cafes to continue operating under coronavirus emergency rules, while the other would extend the regulation allowing the city’s Street Department to close roads to vehicular traffic.

“These amendments will provide restaurants with some breathing room to keep their doors open and employees working and bringing people back to jobs,” Domb told PlanPhilly.

Levy said such an extension would help cash-strapped restaurants have the certainty they need to continue to invest in outdoor seating.

“Retailers are making the decision: am I purchasing additional chairs? Am I purchasing heaters?” Levy said. “And if you know you can use all of that…all the way through next year, then it’s an investment worth making.”

Levy also said he would support beginning a conversation around how to make these regulations permanent, a step taken by New York City last month.

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On Tuesday, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said he supported Domb’s bills “in concept,” but worried about angering pedestrians or drivers.

“There is always some different opinion about closure about public space,”  Kenney said. “But in concept I support giving [restaurants] some opportunity to make up their losses.”

Kenney said he was “not ready to commit” to making the regulations permanent.

SouthGate at 18th and Lombard streets in Center City has weathered the pandemic. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Peter Hwang, who owns the Korean gastropub SouthGate near Rittenhouse square, hopes that the city does make the outdoor dining rules permanent.

Hwang recently spent about $1,200 to purchase four propane-powered heaters to keep diners warm as temperatures fall. SouthGate has not yet reopened for indoor dining, opting to just do outdoor seating and takeout instead.

“As a small restaurant it seems difficult for us to figure out what to do in terms of safety,” Hwang said. “The one thing we can do is provide a nice outdoor area, where guests can enjoy themselves, and feel relatively safe.”

SouthGate owner Peter Hwang and his son Connor, 4, outside the restaurant in Center City. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

‘Halfway there’

The Center City District and Central Philadelphia Development Corporation report found that retail and service businesses have also staged fairly strong recoveries.

The number of temporarily closed retailers went from 185 in June, to 63 in September, while the number of temporarily closed service businesses fell from 199 to 81 in that time.

Of the nearly 2,000 retailers, restaurants, and service businesses surveyed, 79% were open in September, compared to 54% in June.

Additionally, the number of boarded-up storefronts in Center City fell from 276 in June to 56 in September.

But the report offered one other major note of concern: While pedestrian volume has risen by 40% since June, the number of people on the street is still down by about 60% from 2019.

“We are about halfway to recovery to this point,” Levy said. “We need a lot more return to office…we need hotels filling up, we need college students back. All of those are major sources of demand.”

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