In the Courtyard
You can’t see the city from here, but no dining room has ever felt more perfectly Philly. This accidental space behind Queen Village’s Gayle, aglow with tea lights and, on cooler evenings, a fire pit, is formed by the walls of nearby rowhomes — one crumbling stucco, one ivy-clad brick — and backyard fencing that hides the restaurant’s smoker and the source of the cheerful din from the casual courtyard dining room of Hostaria Da Elio next door. A tree grows through the decking, shading the simple iron tables. What’s on those tables is far more impressive: scallops, rich with a thin slice of seared foie gras and summery with a green fava bean puree and garlicky ramp foam; a “fish and chips” of halibut crowned with crisp shards of potato and dotted with unexpectedly delightful blueberries.
Enclosed by stone walls replete with climbing vines and flowers, the Gables’ tiered courtyard is among the prettiest in the region. The Chester County scene is romantic enough for a cozy dinner à deux, but there’s plenty of space for larger groups to relax. Request a table by the mossy waterfall — the rushing sounds help muffle the traffic noise from Baltimore Pike, which can intrude on the otherwise tranquil garden-party vibe. Appetizers on the seafood-focused American menu are portioned to share; a creative take on spinach-feta pie resting on a spicy eggplant puree is a meal in itself. Entrées are wisely offered in both full and smaller portions — a boon for those whose appetites wane as the weather warms. Our favorites are from the grill: mahimahi with chorizo and roasted corn, and the pork chop with a seasonal vegetable ragu.
96 West State Street, Doylestown, 215-489-9900, theknighthouse.com
The blue-umbrella-topped tables on the front patio of Doylestown’s Knight House offer a fine vantage point on the goings-on of the small town. The drivers of minivans stopped at the Clinton Street stoplight call out to families seated here, feasting on burgers and mussels, to make playdate plans. But the real party is just down the alleyway in Knight House’s courtyard. Follow the music — there’s enthusiastic live jazz most nights during the summer — and laughter to the shady, slate-floored space dominated by a busy stone bar where fried calamari and simple summer beers are as at home as seared tuna and signature martinis like the mimosa-inspired mimotini.
Tucked behind the small dining room and far from the street, Southwark’s outdoor tables are barely visible to passersby. The patio, which almost doubles the seating at this Queen Village spot, is shaded by the four-story brownstone next door, adding to the feeling of secrecy. And while the wrought iron tables and chairs aren’t the most comfortable, a plethora of flowers and the white-light-and-vine-adorned trellis more than make up for that. Early each afternoon, the kitchen staff wheels a smoker out here to give the summer menu the barbecue treatment; a recent smoked duck breast proved it’s worth the effort.
Illuminare’s secluded, tucked-in-the-back courtyard is so popular that the wait can be an hour or more. The good news: You can call ahead for priority for seating under the sweeping magnolia tree twinkling with white lights. If the Fairmount restaurant’s gurgling fountains aren’t enough to distract you from city humidity, start with an icy cocktail like the Creamsicle martini or Caribbean Island iced tea. The brick-oven pizza — delicate crust, gourmet toppings — is a specialty, but you can go upscale with Italian seafood pescatore and sweet-and-spicy crabcakes topped with Cajun shrimp. An expansion of hours is planned, and late summer will bring late-night snacks out of doors.
From well-executed classics to an enviable address right on the canal, this enchanting landmark, which is celebrating its 20th year, deserves the praise it’s garnered. Chef Mark Miller’s grilled shrimp starter arrives hefty and hot, soaking in a pool of salty anchovy butter; a fat pork chop — juicy and gently crusted with horseradish — pairs perfectly with crisp sugar snap peas; a satisfying chocolate-peanut butter cake is lighter than it sounds. And when the restaurant opens its small outdoor courtyard, with vine-covered walls and a gentle little fountain, it’s that much harder not to fall in love — again — with the best reason to visit little Lambertville.