The Best Restaurants to Eat Outdoors in Philadelphia, 2014 Edition
There are so many overstretched, overcluttered sidewalk cafes in Philadelphia that cracks about your soup being seasoned with tasty public transportation exhaust are becoming less sardonic and more straight-up true. It's difficult to escape the bustle of any big city while remaining within its limits, of course, but there are ways to do it—you just need to look and book a little smarter.
Here are 10 of our favorite outdoor and open-air hangouts in Philly, where you won't get bumped into by Beats-by-Dre-wearing pedestrians, run down by a runaway stroller, or stalked by someone's hungry crust-hunting dog.
For Pasta Fans: Le Virtù
A partially canopied paved-stone patio lined with herbs and shrubs, the outdoor area of Le Virtù has a little more city grit than its bucolic nickname ("Il Campo," or the field) suggests. But it still has more old-country charm than you can shake a rustic bread basket at thanks to its warm lighting and tall mural depicting a cheery Italian wedding party. Chef Joe Cicala, focusing on the interesting and underappreciated cuisine of Abruzzo, finds things to do in Il Campo multiple times a year. In the colder months, it hosts La Cottorra, a rosy-cheeked cold-weather eating fest complete with bubbling soup cauldrons and wood-fed fires. By May—the month that sees Cicala preparing the elaborate 35-ingredient winter's-over soup that gives the restaurant its name—it becomes this sliver of South Philly's primo al fresco destination.
Cicala can sometimes be found grilling arrosticini, Abruzzese lamb skewers, over live coals out front while guests gulp Cerasuolo and spar over bites of spring pea raviolini. Eaters both indoors and out can and should advantage of the restaurant's ongoing rare pasta series, which sees the chef augmenting his menu with obscure dough stylings from all over Italy.
For a Lush and Scene-y Brunch: Talula's Garden
Aesthetically, it doesn't get much more on-message than open-air dining at Talula's Garden. Vintage spigots and planter boxes sprouting with gorgeous green stuff climb the walls, while the mismatched tables and chairs relaxing beneath a reclaimed-wood pergola seem hand-plucked from the Anthropologie lookbook of our dreams.
Everything's executed in owner Aimee Olexy's urbane farmgirl image, but it's not just salvaged sizzle. Chef Jeremy McMillan works with a web of regional farmers and growers to produce plates the entire network can be proud of. The garden of the Garden is particularly in-demand for Sunday brunch, where standbys include the "Sunday Best" (an Olexy-vetted fivesome of small-batch cheeses) and hearty take on NOLA shrimp and grits with house-made andouille and poached local eggs.
For a Quiet Escape: Southwark
A restaurant whose loyalty to local farms long predates that limiting "farm to table" descriptor, Southwark—most commonly pronounced here the way it's spelled, in favor of the UK "Suth-ick"—is a legit Philly dining pioneer. But while owners Kip and Sheri Waide have built a rep on old-school abilities (they're beloved for their cocktails), it's chef Sam Jacobson, a relative newcomer to this kitchen, who's stretching his legs behind the line.
The hidden garden-style patio, accessible only to those who can beeline through the bar without getting distracted by all those perfect Sazeracs and Hanky Pankys, are rewarded with an escapist dinner setting, all trellises and tables and smooth old bricks. It's particularly welcoming on warm nights, where parties rip through offerings like Jacobson's herb fazzoletti with spring vegetables, white wine, Parmesan, and his own guanciale.
For Pizza Fanatics: In Riva
Banging out beautiful Neapolitan-style pie and a serious range of small plates just feet from the banks of the steady-flowing Schuylkill, In Riva possesses some of the most distinctive restaurant real estate in Philly. The East Falls Italiano takes fullest advantage of this positioning with its expansive patio, outfitted with umbrella'd tables that look out over the river from a sittin'-pretty position.
Pizzas, served on pans that rest atop empty imported tomato 10-cans, touch on traditional and contemporary flavor combinations designed to please crowds. They've done everything right to encourage return business, too, including dedicated walk-up access for runners and cyclists and a separate "pizza 'n' puppies" section to accommodate hungry dog owners.
For Beer and Sandwich Lovers: American Sardine Bar
Point Breeze, a South Philly neighborhood already known for its network of community gardens, has a slightly different outdoor experience available via the Sardine's quaint en plein air chill space. Equipped with comfy lawn chairs, the bar's back yard fills up quickly come happy hour and stays operational long enough to offer a full understanding of the two-fisted lunch/dinner menu, built around a creative sandwich selection that changes with high frequency.
With 16 beers on tap, plus a large list of craft cans available to stay or to go, ASB has a rep as an accessible beer lover's bar devoid of all the cornball product nerdery and snotty service. That pairs well with populist eating options like a Pittsburgh-style patty melt topped with cole slaw and fries and the namesake lil' fish, offered fried, grilled, plancha-seared, or stewed.
For Southern Bells and Whistles: The Fat Ham
Kevin Sbraga has accomplished quite a bit since winning season seven of Top Chef—his eponymous Broad Street restaurant is a hit, and the same can be said for his second project, specializing in the unapologetically big flavors of the American South.
After putting down orders of boiled peanut hummus, yeast roll fried oyster sliders (best $5 bite in the city?), and Nashville-inspired hot chicken, stalk out a seat on the Ham's teeny but comfortable front-side patio. The 3100 block of Walnut Street isn't exactly Walden Pond, but it's difficult to avoid relaxation once you settle into a bench or rocking chair, cocktail or rocks-glass sipper of small-batch bourbon clutched in your hand.
For Riverfront Dance Partiers: Morgan's Pier
The logo of Morgan's Pier features a man teeter-tottering over a treacherous cable, a shout to the Delaware River hangout's namesake, George C. Morgan. A construction crew member on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, he was the first person to cross the structure from Philly into Jersey, which required him to shimmy over an not-yet-complete section. A much different brand of shimmying is in play in 2014, as the Pier hosts a wide roster of local and national DJs. But it's worth arriving on the early side to allow enough time to sit down, eat, drink and enjoy one of the city's premier outdoor venues.
Seating options consist of two bars, an elevated patio, a picnic-style dining floor, and rail seating looking out onto the water. Chef David Gilberg handles an accessible lineup of shareable cookout-style snacks (grilled piri piri chicken; St. Louis-style spareribs; crispy chicken sliders on homemade biscuits) while local craft beers and cocktails like the Watermelon Rickey (21st Amendment's Hell or High Watermelon, poured over watermelon purée) dominate the drinks.
For Wieners, Craft Cans, and Cool Neighbors: Memphis Taproom
The northerly Kensington neighborhood has very little going in the outdoor boozing department, which is why the narrow beer garden Memphis Taproom runs next to its primary barroom was such an instant hit. The flagstone-paved space, complete with picnic tables, string lights, a painted-on projection screen for movies and big games (what up World Cup) and a lively but respectful regular crowd (it is a quiet residential 'hood, after all), is a warm-weather staple in this part of town.
Nailing it home is Memphis' teal food truck, which sits stationary on the garden floor to feed guests a lineup of well-dressed hot dogs, with carnivorous and vegetarian tubesteak options. Inside, get ahold of their unbeatable fried pickles—long, juicy beer-battered dill spears, not those measly chips the size of sad nickels.
For Old School Italian: Little Nonna's
Taking the spirit of a true South Philly red-gravy parlor and imbuing it with a smirking sense of kitsch, the latest addition to Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran's Center City restaurant fleet might be a little more postmodern than the average dish of spaghetti. Just take a look at the laundry-line decor dangling in the twinkly rear garden, complete with grandma's clipped-on doilies and house dresses. But any kitsch doesn't affect the full-flavored cooking—think classic beef/veal/pork meatballs stuffed with fontina and served over polenta—or the appeal of that 40-seat outdoor space, available only on a first-come, first-served basis.
For the Secret Garden-Obsessed: Laurel
It was already tricky to get a reservation at minuscule, 25-seat Laurel, on East Passyunk Avenue, before chef/owner Nick Elmi went right ahead and won Top Chef: New Orleans. Now there's a seemingly interminable lead time for bookings, but that will give the crew plenty of time to get their back patio nailed in all the way. Completely separate from the bustling dining room, this isolated area is how a South Philly BYOB the size of a breaker box does "private dining"—request it, for a party of four or higher, ahead of time, and it's all yours, availability and weather permitting.
Elmi plans on fully planting out the perimeter with vegetables and herbs, which he'll use in his cooking; for now you'll have to "settle" for one of his French-tinged tastings, where comforting bowls of airy ricotta gnocchi crumbled with pancetta share menu room with elegant foie gras terrine threaded with veins of bittersweet cocoa.