Restaurateurs welcome the return of restriction-free dining

by April Lisante
Posted 6/25/21

This week schools let out, graduations finally came to pass and folks started to walk around without masks. Some people took off for summer vacations; others headed to the local pools. But there was something else I got especially excited about …

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Restaurateurs welcome the return of restriction-free dining

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This week schools let out, graduations finally came to pass and folks started to walk around without masks. Some people took off for summer vacations; others headed to the local pools.

But there was something else I got especially excited about: The city of Philadelphia lifted its restrictions on indoor dining, giving restaurants a green light to welcome mask-free patrons at full capacity to indoor dining rooms and bars this summer. Now, all the restaurants that survived the dim days of take-out, shut downs, and makeshift outdoor seating can return to some semblance of normal.

It’s safe to say restaurateurs learned a lot in the past 15 months, adapting to new ways of doing business while trying to stay afloat. For months, I’ve documented in column after column how restaurants struggled to overcome the odds by ramping up take-out and delivery, creating outdoor seating areas where there were previously none and even relying on grants and loans to scrape by and keep employees paid.

We’ve all heard from happy maskless patrons this week on the news, some cheering on the Sixers in crowded bars, others enjoying a long overdue night out. But I wanted to seek out some of the intrepid owners and chefs at our favorite local places to see how they were handling all this return to “normal.” I asked them what they learned this year, as well as what they are most looking forward to as a restriction-free summer unfolds.

They are thrilled to see customers’ faces without the masks, for one. And they love seeing crowds of people having fun and celebrating life again. They also all say they survived the year with a combination of patience, resilience and flexibility.

But it turns out that even with the restrictions gone, things aren’t back to normal for many restaurants, and they probably won’t be until the end of the summer. Owners say a myriad of dilemmas still remain, from lack of staff to menu changes to supply delivery delays and jacked up prices. Adding to the headaches? The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board looks like it may eliminate the temporary outdoor seating erected during the pandemic, as well as cocktails to go.

“It’s super exciting to have everything lifted,” said Brian Sirhal, owner of Mexican hot spot Cantina Feliz in Fort Washington. “The biggest thing I’m excited about is after 15 months is seeing peoples’ faces. One of the biggest things I’ve learned is people love margaritas to go. But there are still a couple of challenges for us.”

On most restaurateurs’ to-do lists this week is transitioning all the take-out food back to a dine-in-friendly menu. Some restaurants, like Chestnut Hill’s Tavern on the Hill, operated on take-out only and had zero indoor or outdoor seats. This week, the restaurant opened its doors for the first time in fifteen months and had to have new dishes and recipes at the ready.

“We are moving forward,” said owner Kathlyn Egan. “Same good food, with some new recipes. We’re looking forward to getting a lot of people back in.”

Across the board, restaurants say food deliveries are hard to predict and items cost more. Lobster suddenly got pricey, as did crab, Anne McNally said.

“The supply chain every day is an adjustment for us,” McNally said. “Things are not back to normal. Even though there is a light at the end of the tunnel, things still challenge us.”

Some restaurants now need to hire more staff and servers to handle the new indoor crowds. Others would like to extend their hours each night, but are closing early, because staff have to run to catch Septa trains, which have not adjusted their late-night schedules yet.

Despite some headaches, not all challenges have been negative.

Some restaurants are getting swamped with reservations, all folks who are thrilled at the prospect of heading for some of their favorite meals amid the vibrancy of a full house.

“We are booked four weeks in advance,” said Jansen’s David Jansen. “Walking in the door every day makes me excited.”

And just when we all got used to tables being a football field apart, many restos spent this week repositioning dining rooms back to the way they were, moving tables closer together – and setting large tables for special events.

“It’s refreshing to see people at our bars again and its exciting to see larger groups out celebrating birthdays and baby showers and enjoying life again,” said Chestnut Hill Brewing Company Taproom owner Lindsey Pete. “You can definitely tell people are excited to be out.”

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