Out-of-the-way alfresco

Posted: September 10, 2009

Outdoor dining is hitting its breezy back-stretch stride now that the summer swelter is just starting to ease. And Philly - not long ago a buttoned-up indoor scene - now has more than a few prime alfresco tables to choose from. Everyone knows about the glittery cafe scene that bustles along the 18th Street side of Rittenhouse Square, our Gold Coast of sidewalk seating. But I love kicking back in some less obvious locales - the secret beer gardens, roof decks, and unexpected patios in both city and suburb - where the fresh air and stars only make the meal taste better. Here are nine favorites:

APO BAR AND LOUNGE

Not formally rated

102 S. 13th St.

215-735-7500

www.apothecarylounge.com

Serious "cocktailians" grab a seat on the rooftop overlooking Midtown Village at this cutting-edge cocktail haven to reclaim some dignity for drinks in a world of appletinis. Premium spirits, homemade mixers, vintage recipes, and creativity distinguish this ultramodern libation lab, where the high-tech slow-melt ice cubes are extra cold and the barkeeps really play with fire. Poof! That's an ignited orange peel landing, fully aflame, in the "Midtown Village," one of 25 variations on the manhattan created by this bar.

BISTROT LA MINETTE (two bells)

623 S. Sixth St.

215-925-8000

www.bistrotlaminette.com

This Queen Village French bistro from chef-owner Peter Woolsey has a neighborhood charm and handcrafted warmth, from the cheery red velvet banquettes and quirky knickknack decor to authentic bistro classics including mustard-sauced rabbit, tomato tart, and homemade bread. There's a lovely sidewalk terrace, but the real alfresco prize here is the secluded back patio, where French films are projected on the wall each Monday night.

DREAM CUISINE (two bells)

Village Walk

1990 Route 70 East, Cherry Hill

856-751-2800

www.dreamcuisinecafe.net

The South of France in a South Jersey strip mall? When chef Vincent Fanari is in the groove of his open kitchen, and the weather is good for patio dining, the answer is oui! This easily overlooked little space is spare but comfortable, but it's Fanari's menu of rustic Proven├žal cooking - simple dishes, zesty olive-tomato sauces, homemade pastas, and wonderful tarte Tatin - that satisfies, especially the bargain prix-fixe menu.

RAW SUSHI & SAKE LOUNGE (two bells)

1225 Sansom St.

215-238-1903

www.rawlounge.net

This hidden sushi lair and sake bar slipped into the narrow, bamboo-fringed storefront of the old Stetson building has always been a bit more about the sultry lantern-lit style than the substance. Still, there are few outdoor spaces sexier than the marble-floored urban courtyard beside the dining room, where you can sip a carafe of junmai sake and nibble an Angel roll beneath the stars.

RESTAURANT M

Not formally rated

225-31 S. Eighth St.

215-625-6666

When the torches are ablaze in the secluded garden behind the historically appointed Morris House Hotel, this may be the city's most enchanting and lush outdoor dining space. The restaurant itself has gone through many on-again, off-again phases (including closure to the public altogether), but recently reopened with a limited but appealing menu of charcuterie, small-plate pasta, and homemade empanadas that are perfect for a light meal and a drink near Washington Square.

SAVONA (three bells)

100 Old Gulph Rd., Gulph Mills

610-520-1200

www.savonarestaurant.com

A major recent renovation has brought a pair of significant changes to one of the Main Line's most reliable upscale destinations: a more affordable bistro menu, and an elegant circular outdoor porch. There's still big-ticket Riviera-style dining for those who want to splurge on sole and one of the region's best cellars. But the casual new Italian-inspired menu has revived a neighborhood feeling here with addictive fried artichokes, soulful pappardelle Bolognese, and a hauntingly good panna cotta topped with caramelized nuts and brandied cherries. Papi Hurtado's inventive cocktails are worth an imbiber's notice.

SILK CITY DINER (two bells)

435 Spring Garden St.

215-592-8838

www.silkcityphilly.com

Philly's seminal hipster diner has evolved to incorporate numerous incarnations and personalities, from comfort food haven to rocking indie nightclub. But the latest addition from current owner Mark Bee is its best yet: a funky, rambling beer garden with a grove of gnomes, pink flamingos, and plenty of picnic tables for kicking back with a craft beer and enjoying chef Jay Henson's deft gastropub fare, whether it's a stellar update to cream of celery soup, wings by the pound, or haute seared scallops with fennel and bean salad.

THE PLAZA CAFE

Not formally rated

Table 31, Comcast Center

1701 John F. Kennedy Blvd.

267-238-0223

www.table-31.com

While Table 31 has seen more than its share of concept changes inside the Comcast Center, shifting from luxury steak to Italian, its sibling outdoor cafe has remained one of the city's most exceptional alfresco locations. It's trimmed by dancing fountains and a wall of trees to screen the traffic, and the affordable menu is perfect for an informal lunch of flatbread pizza, seafood salad, or a panini.

THE SWIFT HALF PUB

Not formally rated

1001 N. Second St.

215-923-4600

www.swifthalfpub.com

There are nearly half a dozen restaurants with outdoor tables flanking the vast Piazza at Schmidts in Northern Liberties, a unique new public space that evokes modern Europe more than Philly. This second venue from the crew behind the Good Dog Bar is one of the more interesting options, with a small but smart craft beer list (and half-sized pours) to pair with a gastropub menu that ranges from great cheeses to Buffalo-sauced fried shrimp, cucumber sandwiches, and a daily "fudge board" trio of house-made sweets.


Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

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