Each year around this time, I can count on a few signs that spring has arrived in Philadelphia. I can’t walk five feet in Rittenhouse Square without tripping over a sunbather, a toddler running amok, or a circle of young hippies playing hacky sack. My allergies remind me of my fragile mortality as I try not to gouge my itchy eyes out of my skull. And every restaurant in town with two feet of curb space creates an “alfresco dining section.” I love the sunshine as much as anybody, but the outdoor eating trend in Center City has reached a comical state of absurdity.
The other day I met a friend for dinner at Zavino, an excellent fancy-pizza spot along 13th Street’s dining row. It was during one of those unseasonably warm spells, and with no seats open inside, we were happy to take a table outdoors. It could have been a scene from a Martha Stewart article about city dining—find a cozy corner and enjoy your ricotta-stuffed veal meatball pie with some fresh air and a glass of shiraz! Then a fumes-spewing delivery truck rumbled by. My friend mentioned the appearance of a cockroach the size of a Prius she’d seen nearby the week before. Even the sidewalk posed a problem; it was sloped and we were seated at a high-top table, so it felt like we might tip forward and topple over into oncoming traffic at any moment. When a table opened up indoors, we jumped on it.
Around the corner, Barbuzzo is one of the city’s hottest restaurants, but no matter how killer their salted caramel budino is, there’s no way I’d sit at one of their outdoor tables to eat it. Yet every night, you’ll see folks trying to enjoy their open-air culinary adventure while women with world-swallowing designer handbags and dads with SUV-sized baby strollers threaten to send their entrees flying to the ground. Around the corner, you can enjoy a cheese platter and a craft beer at Tria—and if you’re outside around 10 p.m. on a Thursday night, you’ll also enjoy the parade of transvestite prostitutes making their rounds. The alfresco option makes sense for joints along Rittenhouse Square, where there’s less traffic, lots of foliage and great people watching. You’ll also find some pleasant neighborhood eateries on sleepy side streets that are perfect for a meal under the stars. But are we really so desperate to stuff our faces outside that we’ll do so while choking on exhaust fumes and barely avoiding both foot and car traffic?
Apparently the answer is yes. My completely unscientific analysis of alfresco dining downtown indicates that the trend is growing, and for that, I blame Neil Stein. Outdoor seating was legalized in this city back in 1979, but it wasn’t until Stein popularized the concept with Rouge that every restaurant seemed to throw a few chairs on the sidewalk to keep up with the trend. In 2001, the Philadelphia Daily News—our town’s arbiter of good taste—said “dining alfresco adds a touch of class, and we can all use a little more of that.” Good call, folks. Now every ice cream shop and corner deli has a table outside, more than a few of which make walking down the block feel like running an obstacle course. As for class, four chairs and a table from Ikea won’t turn your greasy spoon into the second coming of Le Bec-Fin.
For me, the only alfresco experiences that make any sense are those that offer the illusion of escape from urban life. Restaurants like Frankford Hall or Talula’s Table have open-air seating, but within the confines of their well-styled walls, far from honking cabbies or someone’s Pomeranian humping your leg. Maybe if Giada De Laurentiis opened up her own place on Walnut Street, I’d take a curbside reservation (though only if she’d cook the meal herself, and join me for dinner). Otherwise, enjoy the privilege of paying to eat on a crowded sidewalk, folks. That just means more room for me indoors.