I Learned to Love Outdoor Winter Dining — and You Can, Too

There’s no doubt this city knows how to have fun in the cold, and supporting our restaurants should be no exception.

winter outdoor dining

Outdoor winter dining can still be very cozy, thanks to all the heaters and fire pits, like they have at Rouge. Photograph by Maggie Huth

For the most part, the rhythms of life that defined my pre-COVID existence have disappeared, suppressed by months of anxiety, grief, frustration and restaurant shutdowns. But occasionally I still experience that Friday feeling — the need to celebrate the end of the week by getting the f*** out of my house and sipping a glass of wine and nibbling on something cooked by someone else.

When that feeling comes, I try to indulge in an effort to stave off the creeping agoraphobia that I think we’re all experiencing. As someone who remains concerned about the risk of indoor dining, that means dining outside in the cold, sometimes on rainy nights when it feels no one else in the city has decided to leave their houses. Those experiences, which I worried would be miserable and drive me only further inside my apartment, have instead been shining reminders of why I love this city and its world-class restaurants.

On a recent such evening, my partner and I braved the streets for what turned out to be a truly exceptional meal at La Llorona, a Mexican spot in our neighborhood. We ate steaming hot mole-drenched wings and chilled ceviche and sipped aged mezcal recommended by our server. The staff went out of their way to bring us tastes of their favorite mezcal, to recommend food appropriate for the weather and to move our table a little closer to the heater so we’d stay nice and toasty. In the following weeks, whenever we’ve gone back to pick up takeout they’ve offered increasingly more friendly greetings. I had almost forgotten the joy of being a regular, and this connection to a place that isn’t my house and people who aren’t living under my roof in such a lonely time has been a small but essential piece of joy in my life.


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That “Friday feeling” showed up again on a gray Saturday, an urge I honored with an afternoon of French fries, martinis and card games at a table at Rouge on Rittenhouse Square. Their apres-ski tent (decked out with fire pits, animal heads and old-fashioned skis) has made them a hot spot in the city for vibe-y outdoor dining, and the wait to cozy up next to a fire pit had swollen to more than two hours. We opted for a sidewalk table, more generously spaced from other people, warmed with an overhead heater. Perching at a table and watching the world go by — i.e. the never-ending parade of fancy city dogs and their humans — brought me out of my own head for a few hours. A welcome respite.

Here’s what I learned from these two outings: Do not underestimate the power of a heater. In a warm coat and hat, I sat happily for several hours — and my fries stayed just as warm as they would if I was sitting inside.

outdoor winter dining

Jezabel’s alfajores are 100 percent worth sitting outside in the middle of winter for. Photograph by Maddy Sweitzer-Lamme

But you know what? I don’t need a heated igloo to enjoy supporting our restaurants. Sometimes a warming plate of delicious food and the comfort of visiting a beloved spot is all it takes. Take for instance, the weekend I headed to Jezabel’s Café in West Philly, where I sat outside and sipped homemade soup and munched on Jezabel’s incomparable alfajores. There was no heater that day, but I made do with my cozy clothes, a mug of hot soup, and the joyful warmth of simply knowing I was out of my house for once.

The cold did not deter me. Why? Because I live in Philadelphia and I have braved frigid Eagles tailgates, wind-swept Mummers Parades, late-night lines for cheesesteaks, and walks home when SEPTA isn’t running. Our city may not be as cold as, say, Chicago, but Philadelphians never back down when our pride is on the line. Which is why I say to all the people of Philadelphia: bundle up and brave the outdoor dining. You won’t regret it.