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Danya Henninger

Sidewalk Dining Index: The best places in Philly to eat and drink outside

There are pros and cons to even the most popular outdoor spots. We break it down.

As the weather finally warms and the cool breeze makes going inside seem like a crime, can we get a moment of thanks for Neil Stein? Sure, the former restaurateur-slash-socialite spent a year in prison for tax evasion, but without his campaign to get outside seating approved for his Rittenhouse bistro Rouge, Philly’s alfresco dining scene might be something close to dismal.

Happily, it’s not. These days, many swaths of the city are zoned so that sidewalk cafes are permissible; all a restaurant needs to do to add one is get a $175 permit (it used to take a custom ordinance passed by City Council). Though one crotchety columnist still likes to rail against ’em — describing the streetside cafes as “kudzu” that “strangle sidewalks” — most Philadelphians like to take advantage of the chance to eat and drink in the open air.

That said, there are pros and cons to even the most popular outdoor spots. Breaking it down, each can be rated on the following criteria:

  • View
  • Value (food price/quality)
  • Availability (number of seats/likelihood of them being full)
  • Comfort (physical surroundings/likelihood of being bumped into or panhandled)

So when you’re trying to decide where to post up on the sidewalk in the spring or summer sun, consult this index first. (Restaurants are listed in alphabetical order.)

Alla Spina

Marc Vetri’s graffiti-decorated birreria on North Broad (1410 Mt. Vernon St., 215-600-0017)

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Alla Spina / Twitter

View: Because it’s tucked on Mt. Vernon, the view isn’t those odd lamppost/public art things that line Broad but instead the side of an old stone church — 6/10
Value: Beer selection is full of unusual finds, but priced to match; food is on the creative and high-end side of gastropub — 6/10
Availability: A dozen or more tables for the taking if you’re willing to venture north of Spring Garden — 9/10
Comfort: No one really walks on Mt. Vernon, so there’s lots of room for the metal garden furniture, which is nicely cordoned off by branded stanchions — 7/10
Compiled Score: 7

Bistrot La Minette

Peter Woolsey’s French bistro just South of South Street (623 S. 6th St., 215-925-8000)

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Bistrot La Minette / Facebook

View: It’s not exactly ugly, but there’s not much to look at on this Bella Vista block (and sadly even less after the former synagogue next door was demolished to make room for apartments) — 4/10
Value: You won’t find more polished French food at a lower price; same goes for the high-end wines — 7/10
Availability: Those in the know scoop up the half-dozen tables, but there don’t seem to be a lot of people in the know — 7/10
Comfort: A raised platform means you’re nicely separated from the street, though quarters can get a bit close — 7/10
Compiled Score: 6.25

Caribou Cafe

Wash West Parisian cafe from chef Olivier Desaintmartin (1126 Walnut St., 215-625-9535)

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Caribou Cafe / Instagram

View: In the daytime it’s city workers going to and fro; at night it’s patrons of the blocks’ two Irish pubs threading through theater-goers (never boring, anyway) — 5/10
Value: A new “petit plats” menu of French tapas offers good deals, or there’s bargains on classics like coq au vin — 8/10
Availability: Only a handful of tables actually on the sidewalk, but when the big French windows are open, just inside feels close to al fresco — 6/10
Comfort: Rounded wicker chairs that are protected from sidewalk traffic by planters and railings — 9/10
Compiled Score: 7

Cuba Libre

Former nightclub owners Barry Gutin and Larry Cohen’s tropical oasis in Old City (10 S. 2nd St., 215-627-0666)

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Danya Henninger

View: Second Street isn’t much to look at; it’s more worth it to gaze inside at the island-inspired dining room — 5/10
Value: Chef Guillermo Pernot’s Cuban dishes are unique and delicious; while not exactly a bargain, there are many affordable tapas bites — 6/10
Availability: Ten or so tables, but they fill up super quick — 7/10
Comfort: A raised, railed, awning-covered dias makes this the most comfortable kind of sidewalk dining there is, if space is a bit tight — 8/10
Compiled Score: 6.5

El Vez

Fashionable contemporary Mexican from Stephen Starr and crew (121 S. 13th St., 215-928-9800)

El Vez
M. Edlow for Visit Philly

View: Midtown Village crowds are more diverse than the Village People, making for decent people-watching — 5/10
Value: Both the tiny tacos and pitchers of margaritas are close to exquisite, but expect to pay top dollar — 6/10
Availability: The dozen tables wrapping around the corner are nearly always packed — 4/10
Comfort: Service is of the highest level, but so is traffic rushing by, both auto and pedestrian — 6/10
Compiled Score: 5.25

Fitler Dining Room

The Pub & Kitchen team does an upscale American bistro on the edge of Rittenhouse (2201 Spruce St., 215-732-3331)

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Fitler Dining Room / Facebook

View: If it’s not rush hour, when cars zoom up 22nd Street, the church across the way makes the surroundings prettier than most city corners — 6/10
Value: Snacks and plates are on the higher side, but execution is top-notch, and if you consider the neighborhood, the prices are forgivable — 6/10
Availability: Only a few tables, but they don’t see as much biz as they should — 6/10
Comfort: Service is usually on point, making lounging in the wood-slat seats more relaxing than it might otherwise be — 6/10
Compiled Score: 6

Hawthornes

Chris Fetfatzes and Heather Annechiarico’s bottleshop crossed with a modern American diner (748 S. 11th St., 215-627-3012)

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Hawthornes / Instagram

View: Not much to see on the western edge of Bella Vista, except the Fetfatzes family’s beer distributor across the street — 4/10
Value: Nearly any beer you can think of at bottleshop prices, plus consistently great over-the-top comfort food — 9/10
Availability: Four or six large metal tables go quickly on nice days — 4/10
Comfort: Brickwork beneath your feet makes it feel like a patio instead of a sidewalk, and passers-by are few and far between (watch out for the bright sun) — 7/10
Compiled Score: 6

Jack’s Firehouse

Jack McDavid’s American/Southern mainstay in Fairmount (2130 Fairmount Ave., 215-232-9000)

Jack’s Firehouse
R. Kennedy for Visit Philly

View: Towering turrets of Eastern State Penitentiary plus a tiny glimpse of the park at the end of the avenue — 6/10
Value: Some of the most underrated BBQ in town and steaks at bargain prices — 8/10
Availability: Pick from a handful of tables alongside the old firehouse (ok, not exactly sidewalk) or a cluster of big four-tops out front — 8/10
Comfort: Patio seats are shaded by umbrellas and seats out front are nicely-cushioned; both are plenty spacious — 8/10
Compiled Score: 7.5

Lolita

Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran’s original Midtown Village hit (106 S. 13th St., 215-546-7100)

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Lolita / Instagram

View: Shoppers and bar-hoppers and the buzzing storefronts of Midtown Village are interesting, if not exactly picturesque — 5/10
Value: There probably isn’t better modern Mexican in the city, although there is cheaper — 8/10
Availability: Way more tables than seem possible are crammed on the narrow sidewalk, but it’s always busy — 6/10
Comfort: Did we mention “crammed”? Expect bumps from anyway walking by; also, panhandling is common — 4/10
Compiled Score: 5.75

London Grill

Michael McNally and Terry Berch McNally’s friendly-but-classy corner tavern (2301 Fairmount Ave., 215-978-4545)

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Danya Henninger

View: Most tables are set along 23rd Street, which is good because that faces a park instead of an unfortunately-placed gas station — 5/10
Value: Deals on one of the neighborhood’s top beer selections, plus haute-quality food at bar prices — 8/10
Availability: At least 10 tables wrap around the corner; they can fill up but you can always wait for one while having a drink at the bar — 7/10
Comfort: Sidewalk is a bit narrow but it’s not overly busy; umbrellas offer shade for the folding chairs — 6/10
Compiled Score: 6.5

Parc

Stephen Starr’s Parisian bistro on Rittenhouse Square (227 S. 18th St., 215-545-2262)

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Danya Henninger

View: The flowers, greenery and statues of the Square make a beautiful backdrop for the equally beautiful people who make a habit of strolling by — 9/10
Value: Pretty darn pricey, but you can get by for under $25 if all you want is a snack and a drink; also, one of the best bread baskets in the city — 5/10
Availability: More than 80 seats, although they are in high demand — 8/10
Comfort: High marks for sturdy wicker chairs with high backs and built-in heat lamps, though passers-by do have to squeeze close — 7/10
Compiled Score: 7.25

Palladino’s

Luke Palladino’s steakhouse/Italian bistro on East Passyunk (1934 E. Passyunk Ave., 267-928-4339)

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Palladino's / Facebook

View: Too far at the tip Avenue to really catch the area’s quaint feel — 4/10
Value: Some of the best grilled meats, pastas and wines in Philly, but they sure ain’t cheap — 5/10
Availability: Big tables, and lots of them, wrap all the way around the triangular corner — 8/10
Comfort: A wood-clad roof that extends all the way to the edge of the sidewalk (sorry pedestrians) protects sleek, spacious seating from both sun and drizzle — 9/10
Compiled Score: 6.5

Rouge

Philly’s OG sidewalk cafe, kept alive and flourishing by Neil Stein’s daughter, Maggie Wasserman, and her man Rob (205 S. 18th St., 215-732-6622)

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Danya Henninger

View: The Square is pretty; the people around you will be pretty; traffic backing up as it waits to cross Walnut, not quite as pretty — 8/10
Value: Nothing too innovative in food or drink, but the classic favorites are all ultra-top quality (and priced to match) — 5/10
Availability: As many as dozen tables sit below the terrace windows, but it’s never, ever enough — 5/10
Comfort: Cushy seats, but in very close proximity, both to other diners and to pedestrians — 6/10
Compiled Score: 6

Tria Wash West

The second outpost of Jon Myerow and Michael McCaulley’s wine-beer-cheese cafe (1137 Spruce St., 215-629-9200)

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Visit Philly

View: It’s just a Philly street corner, but one with a pretty nice assortment of stonework-covered buildings — 5/10
Value: You wouldn’t expect wine, beer and cheese you’d never find elsewhere to be cheap, but affordable is a good descriptor — 7/10
Availability: The half-dozen high-tops aren’t as popular as they should be — 7/10
Comfort: Metal stools protected from the sun by an awning, but not shielded from pedestrians or the goings on of the street — 6/10
Compiled Score: 6.25

Whetstone Tavern

The Brauhaus Schmitz crew goes for Americana on a Queen Village corner (700 S. 5th St., 267-239-0906)

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Whetstone Tavern / Facebook

View: A bank on one side, never-ending construction on the other; things could improve immensely if/when the Bainbridge Green streetscaping project gets off the ground — 4/10
Value: Chef Jeremy Nolen puts out creative takes on comfort food; pub grub this is not (in price or flavor) — 6/10
Availability: Just far enough off South Street that there’s a good chance at nabbing one of many tables wrapping around the corner — 8/10
Comfort: Sturdy chairs and large tables, though things can get tight when people walk by; luckily, not many do — 7/10
Compiled Score: 6.25

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