Oscar's Tavern

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Updated Feb. 24

Oscar’s Tavern reopened for business Thursday afternoon after a 48-hour hiatus due to health code violations. But if it hadn’t been nice out last Tuesday, the Center City dive might not have been forced to close in the first place.

Because if the temps hadn’t hit 72 degrees — a record high for Feb. 20 — employees wouldn’t have propped open the bar’s front door. And if the front door hadn’t been open, the inspection probably wouldn’t have happened.

Seeing the door ajar is why the Health Dept. sanitarian decided to stop into the tavern at 1524 Sansom St.

“We always open the door on nice days,” said a longtime bartender as she served drinks at the tavern on Thursday. “I’ve worked here 20 years. It lets fresh air in.”

Yet, she said, the inspector specifically told her that’s why he’d come in. A Health Dept. spokesperson confirmed this course of events to Billy Penn.

“Seeing the door opened prompted the inspection,” the Health Dept. spokesperson said.

That’s not enough to shut a place down, the spokesperson clarified — a cease operations notice is issued when a restaurant violates the “Foodborne Illness Risk Factors” section of the inspection report, not the “Good Retail Practices” section under which the open door falls — but it is enough to merit investigation.

“Similar to when a complaint is filed,” the spokesperson said, “our inspectors will inspect when they have reason to believe that a facility is out of compliance.”

Yes, having an open-air entrance at a restaurant is apparently a health code violation.

However — considering the number of Philly restaurants that have rollup garage doors or floor-to-ceiling windows that get flung open in spring — it’s obviously one that’s not often enforced. Not even, in past years, at Oscar’s.

“We’ve had plenty of inspections where the [santiarian] is sitting at the bar, filling out the forms, and the door is wide open,” the Thursday afternoon bartender said.

The rules about restaurant entrances can be found in section 46.922 of the Philadelphia Food Regulations.

“Outer openings shall be protected,” reads the start of subsection (e), which goes on to note the reason is to block entry of insects and rodents. If a door is to be left open, the code requires screens or “air curtains” in its place, or “other effective means.”

Section 46.922 (e)(4) of the Philadelphia Food Code

The regulations don’t apply if the restaurant is fully contained in a mall or a food court — or if “insects, rodents and other animals are absent” for some other reason, like location. (Mmmkay…are there really any locations on this earth that are insect/rodent free?)

Per the code, even if a food facility’s open doors lead onto a porch or patio, that area is supposed to be “protected” against entry of insects and rodents.

So what’s the deal with all the restaurants that welcome the fresh air with open doors and windows every spring? In many cases, the food preparation area is kept separate from the open-air seating area — safely contained behind closed doors. In several cases, however, it’s not. Consider the growing popularity of open kitchens, where cooking happens right where diners can see it. Or food trucks, where food is often cooked next to an open window by definition. Why aren’t these places cited for violations when they have open entrances, or at least subjected to pop-up inspections like happened at Oscar’s?

Update: Sometimes they are, per restaurateurs and managers Billy Penn spoke with. Bru Craft & Wurst has been asked to close its back beer garden garage door during inspections, for example. However, the citation does not appear to be consistently applied.

Asked the question of why the rule might be unevenly applied, the Health Department spokesperson said they did not feel comfortable commenting on “a speculative situation.”

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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...