Center City has fewer restaurants with sidewalk cafes, but more outdoor seating overall

Fast casual is becoming a big player in al fresco dining.

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Danya Henninger
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There are fewer spots offering outdoor seating in Center City and surrounding areas, but more seats overall, a new report found, continuing a sidewalk dining explosion that’s grown nearly 400 percent since over the last two decades.

The Center City District examined the area it calls “Greater Center City” — basically Vine to South, river to river — and counted 428 venues with seats outside.

That’s exactly four less than last year, when there were 432 places. Two of the missing establishments were shuttered by fire and plan to reopen: The Little Lion and Bridget Foy’s. When they do return, they’ll add to the more more than 6,740 seats available for folks looking to catch a bite or drink outside, a jump of around 55 chairs since last season.

Who’s offering all these al fresco opportunities? There’s been a slight shift in the outdoor dining breeze, the CCD noted, one that follows a restaurant industry trend toward quick-service eateries. Fast casuals now make up 22 percent of the Center City outdoor seating stock, up from 19 percent last year.

Sidewalk seating wasn’t always prevalent in Philadelphia. Its popularity only took off thanks to the lobbying efforts of former restaurateur-slash-socialite Neil Stein. Before he was sent to prison for tax evasion for a year, he ran Rittenhouse bistro Rouge, and his campaign to get outdoor seating approved paved the way for the current boom.

Before Stein, restaurateurs who wanted tables out front had to petition City Council to pass a custom ordinance. 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.

Some people are annoyed by the proliferation of sidewalk cafes — including a crotchety Daily News columnist who likes to describe them as “kudzu” that “strangle[s] sidewalks.”

There are several stringent rules sidewalk cafe operators are supposed to follow in order to make them less obtrusive, including maintaining space for pedestrians to pass, keeping ventilation grates clear, using only moveable furniture and keeping chairs parallel to the curb. When businesses don’t follow these guidelines, they can be issued a citation.

Last October, then-City Controller Alan Butkovitz issued a report claiming many of these infractions were not cited, leading to what he said was $25,000 in missed revenue.

Per data from the Street Department, the city has been getting better at this: the number of citations assessed increased from 157 in 2015 to more than 295 in 2017.

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Source: Philadelphia Streets Department / Billy Penn Visualization

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