Area's alfresco menu still growing

Posted: June 21, 2007

If it seems as though you are tripping over tables and dodging waiters any time you walk around town these days, it's probably not your imagination.

Indeed, new sidewalk cafes seem to sprout like weeds from the cracks each spring. And while our outdoor cafes may not match those on the much wider sidewalk of Paris' Champs Elysées, the growth of alfresco dining here over the last 10 years has definitely enhanced the city's European feel and flair.

While there is no cumulative citywide count, by our rough estimate, settings for meals under the sun or the stars could now number some 400 in Philadelphia, with 29 new sidewalk dining sites in Center City alone this year, including newcomers 707, Almaz, Cebu, Taipan Marathon Grill (10th and Walnut), and Uzu Sushi. Plus, these restaurants are adding outdoor seating for the first time: Amada, DiNardo's, Dr. Watson's Pub, Farmicia, Loie Brasserie, Los Catrines, Porcini, DiBruno's on Chestnut, Swanky Bubbles, and Jake's in Manayunk.

A Center City District (CCD) survey just this month tallied 205 establishments from fine dining restaurants to coffee shops, bakeries and bars that have set up tables outside. That's 10 percent more than last summer's 187, continuing double-digit annual increases here since the CCD began the annual survey in 2001, when 69 sites were noted.

Tack on South Street, Northern Liberties, Fairmount, University City and Manayunk - all with high concentrations of alfresco dining - and the numbers could more than double. And that is not even considering what's out in the suburbs.

"It's a sign of the level of people's feeling of comfort and safety in the city," said Paul Levy, CCD president. "Sidewalk dining attracts customers and increases business for the restaurants. In the process, it makes the streets safer. And that, in turn, attracts more people and increases business even more."

Three upscale restaurants are among the more notable new locations for outdoor dining this season.

Since alfresco is as much about the view as the fresh air and the food, the Water Works Restaurant has quickly become a shoo-in favorite with many locals, with 200 outdoor seats at its landmark structure with one-of-a-kind veranda vistas of Boathouse Row and the Schuylkill. Diners on the cliffside terrace side view the south gardens and the Art Museum.

Less spectacular but charming new outdoor venues include the cozy garden at Osteria, Marc Vetri's new outpost on North Broad, where stained-glass church windows are part of the peaceful setting, and Oceanaire, on 7th and Walnut, where the rear courtyard patio has the advantage of outdoor dining without the traffic, fumes and din that plague most sidewalk cafes.

The Center City District survey tracks only ground-level outdoor seating on or visible from the sidewalk in the area from Spruce to Race, Front to 20th - measuring only a fraction of our out-of-doors dining.

So its impressive growth record doesn't include the roof deck at Continental Midtown, Jon's on South (another 150) or the London Grill in Fairmount, where co-proprietor Terry McNally's early campaign to have city restrictions on sidewalk dining eased resulted in small changes in 1994. Then licenses called for "leaving a minimum of ten feet (10') clear footway for pedestrians."

Before that, McNally recalled, permits were issued to the well-connected (like Jack Downey's restaurant on Front Street). A few others risked fines putting tables outside under the city's radar. Recently, McNally says, restrictions have eased a bit more, with enforcement relaxed.

Yet sidewalk cafes have always had detractors who object to the lack of passageway on city sidewalks; a neighborhood group is currently protesting a particularly tight squeeze for a sidewalk cafe proposed on South Street.

Outdoor tables bring bonus business, said Ryan Margolis, a partner at 707 on Chestnut. People tend to extend their dining experience when sitting outside, especially on beautiful days. "They'll have a drink, order some 'Bites' from the menu, have another drink, order some more food," says Margolis.

That goes double for unique, established settings, such as upper-deck dining aboard the tall ship Moshulu at riverside or the graphic Havana street scene exposed when Cuba Libre opens its front wall.

Pizzicato may have the most - and most comfortable - sidewalk seating. The wide walkway at its 3d and Market corner affords armchair seating for 48 at 12 well-spaced tables without blocking pedestrian traffic.

Within a block radius, tables await outside Patou, Red Sky, Continental, Cuba Libre, Plough & The Stars, Philadelphia Fish & Company, Amada, Paradigm, Dolce, Haru and more.

Slightly beyond are the iron-fenced patio at Panorama to the east and, to the south, the secluded garden at City Tavern and second-floor patios at Positano Coast.

That critical mass of restaurants makes Old City a destination for dining, one almost saturated with sidewalk tables.

But dining outside has become the "in" thing to do in many neighborhoods, even those not so thick with restaurants, whether for workers lunching or munching by day or residents dining or drinking by night.

Nowhere is this more evident than in and around Rittenhouse Square, especially at Rouge, which many Philadelphians think of as the city's premier sidewalk cafe in part because it is credited with popularizing streetside dining here after it opened in 1998. (Then, a restaurant needed a permit, $150 for one day, to serve liquor outside. But by 2000, sideway cafes had opened all over town.)

Fourteen small tables straddle the sidewalk at Rouge. Seating 30 to 40, they are so popular for people-watching - seeing and being seen - that they get year-round use.

Most places operate on a strictly first-come, first-served basis. Rouge is one of the few taking reservations for outdoor tables. Manager Reenie McDonnell accepts sidewalk requests from 10 to 10:30 a.m. weekdays for same-day lunch.

"They go fast most days," said McDonnell, "but we keep a few tables for walk-ins and regulars."

Outdoor dining also has a French accent at Brasserie Perrier and the Caribou Cafe.

For hip outdoor dining on South Street, Jon's, at 3d and South, wins hands-down. Late-night crowds in summer often overflow the roughly 150 seats on multi-level patios.

Freestanding propane heaters have made open-air dining possible six to nine months of the year in Philadelphia and - at some restaurants, like Rouge and Jon's - year-round.

"We have a family group of about 20 that comes every New Year's Eve and sits outside," said Jon's manager Gart Buck. "If people want to sit outside when it's four degrees, we'll seat them."

Surprisingly few cafes, however, are found on the Parkway, the avenue modeled on the famed Parisian thoroughfare, namely, Peacock on the Parkway and Asia on the Parkway, on opposite corners at 17th.

Still, alfresco dining midday is no longer the sole province of men with hardhats and tin lunch pails and office workers with brown bags. You will find people networking, holding business meetings, and operating laptop computers at outdoor tables. Some even relax.

There is one caveat: Weather permitting.


Go to http://gophilly.com/food for new and notable outdoor dining spots.


Torta de Congrejo (Crabcake and Gazpacho Salad)

Makes six servings

For the crabcakes:

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted, cooled

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

6 tablespoons mayonnaise

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon each: paprika, Worcestershire sauce and Cuban seasoning (see Note)

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 pounds jumbo lump crab meat, picked over

2 cups fresh bread crumbs 1/2 cup vegetable oil

3 cups Gazpacho Vinaigrette (see Note)

1. In a bowl, whisk the butter, eggs, mayonnaise, lemon juice, paprika, Worcestershire, Cuban seasoning, salt and cayenne. Gently stir in the crab. In 1-cup measures, form six cakes (11/2-inches thick) and place on a baking sheet. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for at least one hour or overnight.

2. When they're ready, roll the crabcakes in fine crumbs.

3. Using a large heavy skillet and medium-high heat, heat the oil until hot, but not smoking. Sauté crabcakes in batches until golden, three to four minutes on each side, turning once. Drain on paper towels. Keep warm in a 200-degree oven.

4. Put 1/2 cup gazpacho vinaigrette on each of 6 salad plates. At the center of each, place a slice of avocado and a crabcake. Arrange a small handful of reserved gazpacho salad on each plate. Serve at once.

- From Guillermo Pernot, concept chef for Cuba LibreNote: For Cuban seasoning, mix equal parts paprika, oregano and granulated garlic.

For gazpacho vinaigrette, cut up 18 Roma tomatoes, two English cucumbers, one red onion, one green bell pepper and two jalapeño peppers (seed as desired). Put them through a grinder with three garlic cloves, 5 tablespoons each of fresh basil and cilantro leaves, 1 tablespoon parsley leaves, 1/2 cup red wine vinegar, 1/3 cup olive oil, ¼ cup Tabasco, 2 tablespoons salt. Adjust seasoning and refrigerate. Makes about nine cups.

Per serving (Without gazpacho salad; see salad recipe for additional nutritional data): 750 calories, 37 grams protein, 37 grams carbohydrates, seven grams sugar, 52 grams fat, 215 milligrams cholesterol, 1,229 milligrams sodium, six grams dietary fiber.


Gazpacho Salad

Makes six servings, about 1/2 cup each

12 cilantro leaves, chopped

12 parsley leaves, chopped

½ red bell pepper, julienned

½ green pepper, julienned

½ poblano pepper, julienned

½ red onion, julienned

½ cup thinly sliced cucumber

1 tablespoon virgin olive oil

Juice of ½ lemon

Pinch of salt and pepper

1. In a bowl, up to 1 hour before serving, toss the cilantro, parsley, julienned peppers, onion and cucumber with the oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Reserve for use with Crabcake and Gazpacho Salad, or as desired.

- From Guillermo Pernot, concept chef at Cuba LibrePer serving: 37 calories, trace protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 2 grams fat, no cholesterol, 41 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.


Pear and Walnut Salad With Honey-Apple-Lavender Vinaigrette

Makes four servings

For the vinaigrette:

1 cup mayonnaise

1 cup apple cider vinegar

2 tablespoons Lavender

Flower Buds (see Note)

1/4 cup honey

For the salad:

12 ounces spring mix greens

1/2 Granny Smith apple, cored and sliced thin

1 Bosc pear, cored and sliced thin

1/4 cup walnut halves

1/4 cup dried cranberries (Craisins)

1 tablespoon crumbled

gorgonzola

2 slice pancetta, fried crisp

1. For the Vinaigrette, 1 hour ahead, in a large bowl, whisk the mayonnaise, apple vinegar, lavender buds and honey together until smooth. Let chill for one hour.

2. For the Salad: Toss the cranberries with the spring mix. On one or two plates, arrange the greens. Place the cheese, pancetta, pear and apple slices atop the salad. Drizzle the vinaigrette over top, to taste. Serve.

- From Pizzicato restaurant, PhiladelphiaNote: Lavender flower buds are the unique aromatic herb used in the blend Herbs de Provence. They can be found in spice and gourmet food shops.

Per serving: 605 calories, 4 grams protein, 35 grams carbohydrates, 29 grams sugar, 50 grams fat, 25 milligrams cholesterol, 475 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.


Contact food writer Marilynn Marter at 215-854-5741 or mmarter@phillynews.com.

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