Compared to its peer cities, Philadelphia is a rooftop bar wasteland. When Assembly rooftop lounge opened at the Logan hotel last month, media and guests at the launch party reacted with a collective gasp of appreciation.
The panoramic view from the ninth floor bar stretches from Logan Circle to the Art Museum. Framed by the striking neoclassical structures of the Parkway Central Library and the Franklin Institute and brightened by the greenery of the Ben Franklin Parkway, it’s nothing less than breathtaking. Although the hotel has existed since 1983, it never before had a public roof (the Four Seasons tended a garden up there, but there was no general access). Now it’s a place where anyone can soak in the gorgeous scene below.
Philadelphia has lots of picturesque vistas, but few places to see them from above. City Hall’s observation deck has short hours and requires advance reservation; One Liberty Observation Deck just opened in late 2015; getting a short glimpse from the Zoo Balloon requires braving long lines. Even less common are places where you can take in the sights while relaxing with a drink or a bite in the open air.
The charms of drinking and dining high in the sky aren’t restricted to enjoying the view, and many U.S. cities are flush with rooftop bars. It’s not just those in warmer climes. Washington DC sports at least 42 (hey, if you can rely on Thrillist for anything, it’s something like this) and NYC has over a hundred.
Philly has fewer than a dozen, and that’s if you’re being generous with the definition.
But that may be about to change.
‘A significant cost’
“We’ve been contacted by several other [local] hotels now considering rooftop bars,” says Eric Rahe, principal at BLT Architects, the Philadelphia-based firm responsible for the design of Assembly.
That’s partly because it’s a current trend in hospitality design, he says, but also because there wasn’t previously a market for it here — and now, perhaps, there is.
“It’s very expensive per square foot [to construct a roofdeck bar],” he explains. “Most rooftops are designed as a utility space, not to accommodate large groups of people.” At the Logan, BLTa had to first reinforce the roof itself — it wasn’t designed to bear nearly as much weight as a regular building floor, neither in “live load” (aka people) nor in furniture. They also had to reconfigure the elevators to go up another level, and bring both stairways up to provide proper emergency egress.
“The point being that there’s significant cost associated,” Rahe says. So unless you’re going to generate substantial revenue, building out a roof might not be worthwhile. “There’s a reason the cocktails [at Assembly] cost what they cost,” he adds.
Those who can afford to stay at the Logan can certainly afford the sky-high drinks. But thanks to the overall explosion of the Philadelphia restaurant field, there’s more money floating around food and beverage here in general, whether it’s from transient visitors drawn by the now-acclaimed scene or locals who’ve embraced dining as a valid form of entertainment.
And not all the new rooftop spots will be fancy.
What’s coming soon
In early June, the team behind Brauhaus Schmitz will launch SkyGarten, an indoor-outdoor beer garden at the Top of the Tower event space on the 50th and 51st floors of Three Logan Square (formerly known as the Bell Atlantic Tower). Expect four beers on tap plus several in cans, along with German-style snacks from chef Jeremy Nolen.
Tiki, a fun Midtown Village surf bar from Jason Evenchik and Tim Heuisler of Time, is likewise targeting an early June opening. The building on the corner of 13th and Drury has always had a small roofdeck (it was previously known as Apothecary, the Corner and Mamou), but has been shuttered and empty for more than a year. When it relaunches this summer, the outdoor space will be known as the Lono Deck, after the Hawaiian god of peace.
Also returning this summer is Le Bok-Fin, the South Philly beer garden on top of the repurposed Bok school building. Previously a pop-up, the bar now has a permanent liquor license, so it officially counts as part of the rooftop cohort.
The zoning issue
What else could be on the horizon? Plenty, although it’s not just a matter of throwing money at the trend. Aside from the structural and design costs involved, there are zoning requirements — and they just got slightly more stringent.
Anyone wanting to turn a roof into a place of business needs to obtain a zoning permit. Prior to this year, if the building was already in a certain type of commercially-zoned district (like the ones where most restaurants and bars are found), L&I could simply review within the department and issue the permit. But the code was recently amended — “in response to the growing popularity of roofdecks,” per L&I spokesperson Karen Guss — and now a new rooftop bar requires Zoning Board approval for either a variance or a special exception, no matter where it’s located.
Still, there are tons of new towers under construction — including Comcast 2, the top floors of which will house the new Four Season Philadelphia — so it’s plausible to think more rooftop bars may soon be joining the fray.
Philly rooftop bar guide
Where to catch a drink with a high-level breeze in Philly right now:
Assembly: Atop the Logan hotel; cushioned lounge seating indoors and out, plus several high-tops; champagne, wine and champagne cocktails; concise selection of small plates, including caviar; stunning view (1875 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy, 215-783-4171).
Stratus Lounge: Above the Hotel Monaco on Independence Mall; sleek, modern seating in the open, two semi-private lounges and behind roll-up garage doors; $14 cocktails and decent beer selection; dance party central; most of the view unfortunately blocked by a historic wall; (433 Chestnut St., 215-925-2889).
Continental Mid-Town: Top floor of Stephen Starr’s eclectic tri-level carnival in Rittenhouse; accessible via special elevator; 70s-inspired glassed-in circular bar plus patio tables surrounded by high walls and greenery; giant (pricey) martinis plus food inspired by any and all cultures (1801 Chestnut St., 215-567-1800).
Vango Skybar: Above Byblos in Rittenhouse and owned by the same family; attached to a full indoor bar; high-end bottle service; sushi and Mediterranean mezze; beds that double as couches; good view of the tops of Liberty I and II (116 S. 18th St., 215-568-1020).
Warmdaddy’s: From the Bynum brothers (South, Relish, Paris Bistro); two-story building overlooking the Delaware; American comfort and soul food; umbrella-shaded tables; live jazz and blues (1400 S. Columbus Blvd., 215-462-2000).
South Bowl: Sibling of North Bowl on the southeast tip of the city; petite second-floor section without any furniture; inside has two floors of lanes and games; pizza and bar snacks; cheap cocktails and 16 draft beers (19 E. Oregon Ave., 215-389-2695).
City Tap House University City: Firepits and picnic tables surrounding grassy second-floor plaza at the Radian Building; 60 taps at the bar inside; modern American small plates, salads and entrees (3925 Walnut St., 215-662-0105).
Revolution House: Flower-adorned corner deck at an Old City tavern; recently covered with full awning; Neapolitan pizza from a white-marble oven; inexpensive cocktails and beer; view features the very tip of the Ben Franklin Bridge (200 Market St., 215-625-4566).
Standard Tap: From the owners of Johnny Brenda’s; wood-planked second-floor patio with high opaque roof; all-local, all-draft beer list plus creative cocktails; chalkboard-only menu of no-nonsense comfort food; (901 N. 2nd St., 215-238-0630).
XIX Nineteen: On the nineteenth floor of the Bellevue; run by the Hyatt; a balcony more than a deck; views up and down Broad Street, including City Hall; extensive high-end wine list; raw bar, steaks and seafood (200 S. Broad St., 215-790-1919).